The Truth About the War in Donbass

Opinion by Colin Mangan
Photo: US Army Europe

In recent weeks, the Biden Administration has intensified its diplomatic and military efforts to keep Ukraine within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (Savranskaya 2017) sphere of influence under the pretext of a supposed Russian ground invasion of the Donbass (i.e. the Easternmost region of Ukraine) in the near future. The United States has even gone so far as to send an additional 3,000 troops to Poland and has recalled employees from the US embassy in Kyiv. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has proclaimed that Russia’s failure to capitulate to US demands, which includes the possibility for NATO expansion into Ukraine, “would result in a resolute, massive, and united Transatlantic response” (Lamothe 2022; CBS 2022; Vella 2022).

On February 16, President Joe Biden declared “(If) we do not stand for freedom, where it is at risk today, we’ll surely pay a steeper price tomorrow” (Collinson 2022). Biden’s sentiment mirrors the standard geopolitical narrative perpetuated by Western powers: that Russia is a malevolent rogue state and is attempting to invade Ukraine without any provocation as part of President Vladimir Putin’s counter-hegemonic ambitions. However, reality offers a substantially different picture. To be sure, Russia has very real geopolitical interests in Ukraine, and for good reason. The Russian intervention in Ukraine must be understood within the context of decades of military and economic encirclement by Western imperialism.

The two great powers behind the current conflict are Western capital (exemplified militarily by NATO and financially by the European Union) and Russia. In examining the geopolitical interests of these parties, we can make several observations often ignored by Western observers—the first of which pertains to NATO. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, it must be remembered, is not a benevolent ‘peacekeeping’ force. Rather, it is the fist of Western imperialist hegemony, originally founded in 1949 to internationally isolate and intimidate the Soviet Union and the burgeoning worldwide communist movement. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, NATO has been repurposed for two ends: the further geopolitical and military encirclement of Russia and the destruction of counter-hegemonic projects (notably in the former Yugoslavia and in Libya).

Likewise, the European Union represents imperialism in one of its most advanced forms hitherto seen in the modern world system. When we refer to these institutions as ‘imperialist,’ we mean that NATO/EU are “international monopolist capitalist associations which share the world among themselves” (Lenin 1916) through the export of finance capital to semi/peripheral countries in the world market. 

Make no mistake; the European Union is by no means some sort of cosmopolitan union promoting international progressive socio-economic development. Rather, the EU is the consolidation of European finance capital, dominated by historical great powers (France, Germany, etc.). Its monopoly on transnational finance and trade strips smaller member states of economic sovereignty through the imposition of neoliberal economic policies, enabling the realization of super-profits on a continental scale and ensuring the permanent underdevelopment of the semi/periphery. 

In short, we must understand that imperialism, particularly in Europe, is not a process of progressive integration into the world market, but rather an inherently violent process of the internationalization of capital. It is thus a barrier to the economic development of both semi/peripheral and smaller core countries. In contrast to the European Union, Russia is very much a semi-peripheral nation in the world market with a comparatively limited sphere of influence. Although Russia is certainly a practitioner of state-monopoly capitalism, it is also counter-balance to the European Union, and, as we shall see, has historically offered a regional alternative to Western European hegemony. 

Although the War in Donbass thus amounts to a proxy conflict between these two powers, there is a distinct counter-hegemonic moment, as expressed by Russia’s demands that “Ukraine would never join NATO, and…NATO allies to pull all troops and nuclear weapons from former Soviet republics and nations that once belonged to the Warsaw Pact”; demands which the US of course regards as “nonstarters.” (Crowley and Sanger 2022). In the dying days of the Soviet Union, American diplomats verbally promised Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, on multiple occasions, that NATO would not expand eastward, in exchange for the Soviet Union allowing for the reunification of Germany (National Security Archive 2022). Furthermore, since the end of the Soviet Union, Ukraine has been put in the precarious position of being forced to choose whether to economically ally with the EU or Russia. In 2014, the situation culminated in the Euromaidan coup. 

In 2013, the neutral government of Ukraine, led by President Viktor Yanukovich (who opposed NATO expansion) abruptly discontinued negotiations to establish an Association Agreement with the EU in favor of pursuing integration with Russia and the Eurasian Economic Union (“Ukraine’s Parliament” 2010). The decision polarized Ukrainians, particularly the Russian-speaking population in Eastern Ukraine, who have historically been skeptical of economic integration with the EU. Historically, this group has favored neutrality between East and West, if not being more inclined towards allying with Russia (Greene 2014).

Geostrategically, Russia had very real reasons to fear the prospect of Ukraine joining the European Union. The Crimean Peninsula is historically part of Russia; it was only in 1954 that the territory was transferred to Ukraine by the Soviet government. The Sevastopol Naval Base, located on the western coast of the peninsula, was one of the largest Soviet naval bases until it was handed over to the Russian Federation in 1991 in exchange for yearly lease payments to Ukraine. Under the agreement with the EU, Russia would have found one of its largest naval bases under Western economic control.

The deep socio-political divisions within the Ukrainian population exploded during the Maidan protests. Polls at the time found that while 84% of Western Ukrainians supported the protests, 81% of Eastern Ukrainians were decidedly against them (Olearchyk 2013). In the face of the increasingly violent protests, the Yanukovich government signed an agreement (mediated by the EU and Russia, with the US as an observer) with the political opposition. Yanukovich, among other things, agreed to hold early elections, political devolution to Ukraine’s provincial subjects, and a withdrawal of police from the capital. 

Amidst the political chaos, the most reactionary, militaristic, and chauvinistic elements of Ukrainian politics took front and center in leading the Maidan protests. Ukraine has a long and violent history of national chauvinism amongst the political establishment. During World War II, Nazi-collaborator Stepan Bandera led a fascist insurgency in the region, and not only are members of Bandera’s Organization for Ukrainian Nationalists (1929-1956) eligible for veterans’ benefits but today Bandera himself is officially honored as a “Hero of Ukraine.” In the wake of the Maidan protests, several neo-fascist parties—Svoboda, Right Sector, the Ukrainian National Assembly–Ukrainian National Self Defense (UNA–UNSD), the Congress of Ukrainian Nationalists—played a central role in overthrowing the Yanukovich government. 

On February 22, 2014, even after Yanukovich agreed to hold early elections, these fascist militias stormed the parliament building and forced Yanukovich to flee the country, lest he is assassinated. Although these groups have experienced an electoral decline in recent years, Maidan allowed for their integration into Ukraine’s military bureaucracy. The Azov Battalion, for example, founded in 2014 as an openly neo-Nazi military group and engages in the dissemination of ultra-nationalist propaganda among Ukrainian youth, was integrated into the Ukrainian National Guard. In 2015, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) connected the Azov Battalion to war crimes including mass looting, torture, and rape (OHCHR 2015). Perhaps most disturbingly,  these groups have been militarily supported by the United States, through the CIA, since at least 2015 (Dorfman 2022).

It is in this context—the fascist overthrow of a neutral government and the subsequent pro-Russian protests in Eastern Ukraine—that Russia intervened militarily in Crimea to protect its military installations and the region’s ethnic Russian majority, with 95% of Crimeans voting to join the Russian Federation in a 2014 referendum. Although Sergey Aksyonov—then head of government of Crimea—invited international observers to monitor the elections, Western ‘observers’ declined and have since condemned the plebiscite (and without significant basis, one might argue). Subsequently, the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts of Ukraine held similar referendums, with secessionists winning overwhelmingly in both territories. 

The probability of Russia launching a full-scale ground invasion of Ukraine ranges from small to being outright farcical (unless Russia is willing to face another wave of devastating economic sanctions). What seems more likely is that the Ukrainian government is using the pretext of a supposed Russian invasion in order to launch its own offensive against the rebelling territories, with President Volodymyr Zelensky telling the Foreign Intelligence Service of Ukraine “It is time we begin offensive actions aimed at securing our national interests.” (Gazdiev 2022). The perceived urgency in pacifying the Eastern provinces likely also comes from Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s January trip to Kyiv, in which he pressured the government to move towards implementing pro-Western political reforms (previously negotiated in 2015). Given the historic devaluation of the Ukrainian hryvnia since 2014, it’s possible that the implementation of said reforms is tied to the receival of credits by the International Monetary Fund (Events in Ukraine 2022).

The ultimate cause of the conflict in Ukraine is the expansion of Western hegemony into Eurasia, and the destruction of counter-hegemonic projects, such as the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union. But whether NATO/EU or Russia prevails in Ukraine, it is a no-win scenario for the majority of people. Nonetheless, ensuring the autonomy of the provinces in question and preventing NATO expansion seems to be a more desirable alternative to fascist-backed Western ultra-imperialism. 

Colin Mangan is a junior sociology and philosophy major, and is currently enrolled in the philosophy 4+1 program, on track to graduate in Spring 2023 with a BA and an MA. He is currently the host of Straight Talk on WHRW Binghamton, on Thursdays at 5:30. His wide array of interests include the study of capitalism as a world-ecology, and he is also a passionate student of Marxist, Leninist, and anti-imperialist theory. After his master’s degree, Colin aspires to pursue a PhD in sociology, focused around historical capitalism and the world-ecology conversation. Colin also has a dual Irish citizenship.


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