Speaking from Kyiv, Vladyslav Starodubtsev, an activist with Ukrainian socialist organisation Social Movement, addressed the Sydney launch of Ukraine Resists! Left Voices on Putin’s War, NATO and the Future of Ukraine. The following is a revised and edited version of his presentation and responses to questions raised in discussion.
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I think it is important that you have started this meeting with an acknowledgement regarding stolen Indigenous lands in Australia because without an anti-colonial outlook, the left will never be strong. It is a prerequisite for us to work with indigenous peoples defending their communities and nations fighting imperialism.
The left should always be against colonialism, forced assimilation and the destruction of Indigenous peoples’ land. We should fight against all imperialisms and colonialisms and understand that all these struggles are connected.
This is because a successful struggle against one imperialist power weakens imperialism as a whole. We should therefore strengthen all anti-imperialist and anti-colonial movements and seek to create unity among all those fighting colonialism and imperialist aggression.
Right now, Ukraine is being besieged by an imperialist power that wants to destroy the Ukrainian people and state. Ukrainians are resisting a brutal war of assimilation and extermination.
For example, Russia recently acknowledged it has stolen at least 700,000 children from Ukraine and sent them to reeducation camps. This is a war crime and an act of genocide against the Ukrainian nation. It is also an insight into Russia’s actions in the occupied territories.
That is why genuine anti-imperialist solidarity with Ukraine today is so important.
In Ukraine, the situation on the military front remains much the same as it has been for a while now. Russia continues to bomb major cities, killing many people and destroying civil infrastructure. Meanwhile, on the frontline, the Ukrainian army is slowly advancing.
One important development is that Ukraine has developed its own capacities to strike Russian munitions supply and airfields deep behind Russia’s lines. But, unfortunately, the lack of equipment and training provided by Western powers has undermined the counteroffensive and made it harder to push through Russian defensive lines.
Ukrainians have been extremely critical of NATO powers for their delays in providing weapons. But we also recognise there are no other powers helping Ukraine, so we do not have much of a choice.
We criticise NATO for prioritising its geopolitical interests and its lack of real solidarity and support. But, at the same time, we recognised that without the weapons we have received so far, many more Ukrainians would have died. Without the anti-aircraft missile systems we now have, I would not be here speaking to you from Kyiv and my family would likely not all still be alive.
Unfortunately, it seems the war will go on for a long time. The majority of the people in Ukraine do not think this war will end swiftly and are morally and militarily preparing themselves for a long fight.
This includes Ukrainian-speaking and Russian-speaking Ukrainians, as well as citizens of non-Ukrainian or Russian nationality in Ukraine. Regardless of language or nationality, practically everyone is supporting Ukraine against Russian imperialism, either by fighting in the army or via other means.
On the political front, we, as Social Movement, have been campaigning against the government’s neoliberal approach. In recent weeks, we have had some relative successes on some of the issues we have been campaigning on.
This includes the reintroduction of workplace inspections by labour inspectors, which give workers more strength when it comes to their struggles against business owners who disrespect them or do not pay them properly. It also includes the recent decision to roll back business tax cuts introduced at the start of the full-scale invasion, in order to boost state revenue.
The war has forced some neoliberal politicians to make pragmatic choices and implement at least some form of economic management. This, in turn, has provoked a backlash from business sectors that favour the destruction of the Ukrainian state through the abolishment of taxation on businesses, complete privatisation, etc.
What we have is a conflict between two political factions within the Ukrainian government: one composed of more radical neoliberals and the other made up of pragmatic neoliberals that see the need for a state capable of at least fighting the war and providing some level of social stability.
Amid this conflict, the radical neoliberal sectors have been using the media to fight back against the more pragmatic Ukrainian politicians and have utilised far-right militants to attack politicians and activists who support social security and social stability.
There have also been a number of recent corruption scandals, in particular involving the army and conscription centres that led to the removal of those in charge of the conscription campaign. This has opened the path to a broader fight against corruption.
This is also an important campaign underway to ensure municipal democracy as a means to protect cities from the dominance of construction companies and secure green spaces, parks and public spaces. In response, the bigger municipalities and construction businesses have joined forces and used the police or special services to pressure activists to stop their activities.
Another important advance was the recent announcement of a criminal case being opened against Communist Party leader Petro Symonenko, who fled Ukraine when the invasion started. Since then he has been organising and funding professional campaigns in support of Russia's genocidal campaign in Ukraine.
As part of this criminal case, the authorities searched Symonenko properties, exposing the lavish lifestyle he lived in his huge “Communist” mansion. The case against Symonenko is important in terms of targeting Russian-connected oligarchs and politicians working against Ukraine.
Another important part of our activities is centred on discussions around post-war construction. In these discussions, the Ukrainian government has been promoting the most neoliberal position possible — even more neoliberal than the European Union or United States — while refusing to listen to trade unions and civil society.
An example of this was the recent Ukraine Recovery Conference organised in London by the Ukrainian and British government, where practically no one from civil society was invited. Instead, it was left to Ukrainian business representatives to discuss plans for Ukraine’s reconstruction.
In response, we as Social Movement were part of organising a counter-conference that brought together British Labour MPs, Ukrainian economists, economists from the London School of Economics and civil society activists, to discuss how we can organise a social reconstruction that is oriented towards workers and local communities.
This conference gained a lot of traction and gave Labor MPs and others a chance to become more familiar with the issue to better support us.
This is important because we are practically the only ones in Ukraine pushing for an alternative social reconstruction.
Peace and negotiations
Regarding the various questions asked about negotiations and prospects for peace, we do not believe that the solution lies in viewing Ukraine as part of Russia’s backyard and allowing Russia the right to decide over our internal politics. This was essentially the position of the US government in the 1990s, which only empowered Russian imperialism, as we saw with the invasions of Chechnya and Georgia, and then Ukraine in 2014.
We also do not believe that the solution lies in Russian and US imperialism reaching an agreement over the heads of Ukrainians to force Ukraine to be neutral or cede part of its territory in the interest of defending Russia’s “security interests”.
We should ask ourselves who needs defending: imperialist states with nuclear arsenals that seek to annex countries and destroy whole nations, or states and peoples resisting imperialist ambitions?
We believe any nation that faces imperialist aggression should be granted solidarity and support from grassroots movements and states. Rather than dividing up spheres of influence, we should promote a universal approach in which all nations and people deserve security.
Moreover, the left should never surrender rights, including the right to security, without a fight. Just as the left has done with Palestine, we should struggle rather than surrender to some abstract idea of peace. Because if we give up our rights without a fight, we are doomed to a world dominated by imperialism.