Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Russia's biggest neighbour and the second largest constituent of the erstwhile USSR is a major international crisis. There are reports of growing civilian casualties of Russian bombing and large numbers of Ukrainians fleeing to neighbouring countries for safety. At least one Indian student has also been killed by Russian shelling of Kharkiv, the second largest city in Ukraine, even as South Asian and African students trying to board trains, or to cross the border into Poland face racist attacks. The attack on Ukraine has come on the heels of Russia's declaration of diplomatic recognition for the Luhansk and Donetsk regions of Eastern Ukraine as two independent people's republics and deployment of Russian troops as 'peacekeeping forces'.
The war has triggered widespread international protests, most significantly within Russia, where even many people who had earlier supported the recognition of predominantly Russian-speaking Luhansk and Donetsk have joined the protests. The people of Russia and Ukraine have very close cultural and social ties and despite police crackdown and mass arrests, more and more Russians are coming out on the streets to demand an immediate end to the war. Many prominent Russian celebrities have come out openly against the war. More than 4,000 Russian scientists and science journalists have signed an open letter opposing the war.
Only a century ago, the region had turned an imperialist war into a revolution. The ten days of Russian revolution that shook the world had snapped the imperialist chain at its weakest link and turned Tsarist Russia into the first socialist country of the world. The victorious revolution transformed the Tsarist empire, a veritable prison of nationalities, into a socialist confederation – the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Shared socialist construction and a Marxist approach to the nationality question – recognising every nationality's right to self-determination including the right to secede – created a new model of multinational unity. This was possible only because the November revolution not only demolished the Tsarist autocracy, it also overcame the Great Russian chauvinism.
Over the years, Soviet socialism lost its way, and the bureaucratic degeneration of socialism and erosion of the socialist confederal unity of nationalities eventually led to the collapse and disintegration of the USSR. Ukraine emerged as a sovereign republic in 1991. For years Ukraine maintained a certain balance in its ties with Russia on one hand and European Union on the other till the toppling of the elected Yanukovych regime in February 2014 and Ukraine's subsequent quest for a strategic alliance against Russia with the European Union and NATO. Russia had retaliated by lending explicit support to the separatist movement in Russian majority Donbas region and annexing Crimea.
The 2014 crisis and hostility was sought to be resolved diplomatically with mediation by France and Germany. The resultant agreements reached in a summit held in Minsk, the capital of Belarus involving Russia, Ukraine, France, Germany and representatives of the Luhansk and Donetsk republics came to be known as the Minsk I and Minsk II agreements (September 2014 and February 2015). These brought about a ceasefire and reduction of hostilities, but with the agreements reflecting the imbalance of forces generated by Russian intervention and never fully implemented, the Russia-Ukraine conflict has again entered a new phase, with Putin describing Ukraine’s very statehood as 'Lenin's Ukraine' and vowing to undo this Leninist legacy, and Ukraine seeking its future in the EU and NATO.
The solution to the Russia-Ukraine conflict could still lie in a negotiated agreement which balances the issue of Ukraine's sovereignty with internal decentralisation and guarantees of the rights of the Russian ethnic minority. But the continuing eastward expansion of NATO and Ukraine's insistence on having strategic alignment with EU and NATO is also an obstacle. The existence of NATO as a military alliance of the Cold War era lost its very raison d’etre in the wake of the collapse and disintegration of the Soviet Union and the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact. Yet, NATO has not only embarked on imperialist wars but has continued to make deeper inroads in Europe with its membership increasing from the founding number of twelve in 1949 to thirty in 2020.
Even though NATO has not yet inducted Ukraine as a full member, and consequently stops short of making an explicit military commitment in support of Ukraine, the EU, originally a trade bloc, has started transforming itself into a veritable military alliance with its decision to fund Ukraine's weapon purchases. While talks have begun between Russia and Ukraine, it remains to be seen if the two countries really manage to avoid further escalation and reach a quick truce.
The current conflict between Russia and Ukraine has extremely worrying global implications. There are unmistakable signs of renewed global confrontation and arms race between NATO and the Russia-China alliance. The growing penetration of the US in Europe will also advance the interests of the US military-industrial complex at the cost of possible cooperation between Russia and Western Europe. The Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline between Russia and Germany has already become a casualty. Even as the world smarts under the ravages of the Covid19 pandemic, the global economic recession, and escalating climate change, we now have a potentially explosive war threat staring us in the face.
For Russia and the whole world, the history of the Soviet Union's Afghanistan adventure and its aftermath holds some stark lessons. The invasion and occupation of Afghanistan paved and accelerated the decline and eventual collapse of the USSR. And the patronage provided by US imperialism to the Mujahideen in Afghanistan heralded decades of terrorism and US-led wars of occupation and plunder. Reports of funding and training in recent years to openly fascist paramilitary outfits in Ukraine by the West are extremely ominous. More broadly, it is impossible not to notice that the hypocritical high-decibel American and Western support for Ukraine stands in sharp contrast to other conflicts where Western propaganda routinely demonises resistance, such as the Palestinans’, and dehumanises the refugees fleeing the wars, like Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans and many others. Nor can we forget that Putin himself was embraced by Bush and Blair as a great ally precisely because of his brutal war on Chechnya. Behind all this hypocrisy lies not only blatant racism, but Western interests in using Ukraine to dominate the entire region.
It is ironic that during the Second World War, Ukraine and Russia together had combated and defeated Hitler's fascist aggression at great human cost. Today ultra-nationalist, far right forces are gaining ground across the entire region amidst this crisis, threatening yet more protracted suffering to its people. In the US, Trump has been all praise for Putin's 'smartness' and in India, we can see how India's own ultra nationalist Hindutva forces see Putin as a role model and the Ukraine war as an ideal template for how India should deal with her neighbours, especially Pakistan. Meanwhile, Modi and other BJP leaders are busy invoking the Ukraine war to seek votes for the BJP in UP elections, harping on the need for a strong government and Modi's alleged global stature even as Indian students stranded in Ukraine face an extremely insecure and uncertain future. The Modi government has done practically nothing to arrange timely evacuation of Indian students and even take up the issue of racist attacks faced by Indian students trying to cross the border.
The forces of peace and democracy the world over must demand an immediate end to the war and diplomatic resolution of the conflict, respecting the sovereignty of Ukraine and the rights of Ukraine's ethnic minorities, and ensuring peace and stability in the region. For real and lasting peace, the US-NATO expansionism must also stop and NATO disbanded.