U.S. and junior partners laid the basis for Putin’s illegal war
Children sit in a refugee center in Nadarzyn, near Warsaw, Poland, March 25, 2022. Petr David Josek | AP

BERLIN — In March 2014, I found myself in the stunning Ukrainian port city of Odessa. This was just mere weeks after the toppling of President Viktor Yanukovych had occurred in Kiev. At the time, it appeared as if this had been the climax of several months of upheaval and political jousting. In a sense, it was – but the saga it would find itself a part of was only in its infancy. Gazing at Odessa’s picturesque streets in almost disbelief (they do after all call it the pearl of the Black Sea), it was easy to forget that I was here to fulfill my assignment as a reporter. The ouster of Yanukovych brought about a significant pushback in eastern Ukraine, in which ethnic Russians predominate, but also in several other strategically key areas of the country. Odessa was one of these.

Making my way toward the Regional Administration building, I could see that a smallish demonstration had gotten underway. People called this demonstration an “Anti-Maidan” event, standing in contrast to the pro-European Union protests that had seized Kiev – both figuratively and now literally. In essence, these protests in Odessa wanted Ukraine to continue leaning more toward Moscow than Brussels.

Minutes after my arrival, a group of men started to burn the red and black flag that has historically been associated with the far-right in Ukraine. In Kiev weeks earlier, I had identified the flag as belonging to the Pravy Sektor (Right Sector), a neo-Nazi group that had guarded Maidan in the evenings. Historically, it belonged to the likes of Nazi collaborator Stepan Bandera and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army that fought the Soviet Red Army.

Scuffles broke out between anti-Maidan protesters who still wanted to be Ukrainian and those who preferred being Russian. Odessa, after all, had long been considered by a majority of its Russian-speaking residents a “Russian” city despite its location in Ukraine. It was clear that nationalism was dividing even people otherwise united in their opposition to a fascist-led coup in Kiev.

Eight years later, people in Odessa today are barricading streets and bracing for a possible Russian military attack.

Russian flags are now flying in some parts of the country, sometimes placed there by the occupying Russian military. In some locations, people identify those flags with the fight against neo-Nazis and in others, the flags placed by Russian soldiers draw demonstrators opposing the Russian presence.

It’s impossible to overlook the fact that there are indeed far-right forces operating in Ukraine. It’s also impossible to overlook the fact that this is a pretext for Russia’s invasion, one that Moscow relies upon to justify its violation of international law by crossing the borders of a sovereign country with its troops. Right-wing nationalism has its poisonous influence in both Russia and Ukraine.

Putin, an adherent of this nationalism, even said in the weeks leading up to the invasion that Lenin and the Bolsheviks were wrong to stress the independence and nationhood of Ukraine and its right to national self-determination.

When Russian flags are planted on Ukrainian soil, it doesn’t simply mean a kind of pushback against the west or NATO, which is how a few leftists (although very minuscule in number) view it. There is nothing fundamentally ‘anti-imperialist’ about an invasion if the aim of the invasion is to destroy Ukraine’s nationhood.

Russia is not merely fighting the reactionary government of Volodymyr Zelensky – a government that is indeed a right-wing government that recently shut down all opposition political parties, newspapers, and TV stations. Putin is aiming, or at least appears to be, aiming to discount the very notion of Ukrainian self-determination. It is not simply the regressive, anti-communist Ukrainian state that is at risk of being lost (which no socialists could probably bare to shed a tear for), but Ukraine as an entity.

While Putin has been remarkably vocal in his anti-communism, that hasn’t stopped the Russian state from falling back on the very legitimate historical memory of the fight against fascism from 1941 to 1945. It was a fight led by communists.

Putin likens the fight in Ukraine to the Second World War, with his talk of the need to “de-nazify” a neighbor before that fascist threat is in a position to attack Moscow itself. For Russian citizens old enough to recall when German soldiers were on Moscow’s doorstep before being pushed back in the legendary Battle of Stalingrad, what could possibly be more powerful an argument for intervention in Ukraine?

The Ribbon of Saint George, although harking back to the Russian Empire, is most widely known as a symbol of the Soviet sacrifice and heroism during what they called the Great Patriotic War.

When it comes to the fascist threat in Ukraine, it doesn’t help when outlets such as the BBC and many others in the Western press attempt to prettify the Azov Battalion, painting them as being “only ten to twenty percent” neo-Nazis. Tens of thousands of parents who voted for Zelensky, rather than for open fascists, send their children to training camps run by groups like the Azov Battalion. Fascists have a mass base in Ukraine.

When it comes to the memory of the Great Patriotic War, it is important to realize that 27 million Soviet citizens died in the fight against Nazism. This was when the Soviet Union was precisely that – a union of equal republics, in which each had the right to its own territorial boundaries and the right to secession, to practice its own culture and customs, and flourish under the world’s most effective affirmative action program ever initiated.

This doesn’t mean there weren’t problems or inconsistent application of the nationality policy, or that there weren’t certain periods of regression when Russian chauvinism would rear its head. Still, the basis for a new kind of brotherhood of peoples existed and could be built upon because of the achievement of bringing together the nations making up the USSR in 1922.

The Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic suffered tremendously during the German invasion, known as Operation Barbarossa. Although many Ukrainians did see their fate with an independent, anti-communist Ukraine and banked on siding with the German fascists, many heroically fought in the trenches as Red Army soldiers.

One of these former Ukrainian Red Army soldiers, an 80-year-old who served for thirty years – although not old enough to have been in the Second World War – sternly and passionately told a film crew in his city of Irpin of the Russians, “If they come here, I’ll tear those fascists to pieces.” To him, a fascist means any unwelcome invader.

Vladimir Putin once said, “anybody who does not regret the passing of the Soviet Union has no heart. Anybody wishing to restore it has no brains.”

When imperialist politicians on the Western side of the aisle, such as Joe Biden, make claims of Putin wanting to revive the Soviet Union, they slip into the same kind of traditionally anti-communist rhetoric that has historically been effective in the U.S. Biden, in his recent speech in Warsaw, tried to revive that anti-Sovietism in an obvious attempt to justify U.S. support for a long and vicious economic war against Russia. Powerful forces in the U.S., including the Pentagon, the weapons manufacturers, and the fossil fuel industry all benefit from the war and are in no hurry to see it end.

Putin on the other hand has no love for the ideological underpinnings of the old Soviet Union which led the fight against U.S. imperialism. His speech on the eve of the invasion wasn’t the first time he had criticized Lenin or spoken of socialism as a kind of utopian fantasy at odds with reality. Still, like many Russian nationalists, he does seem to hold on to a certain fondness for the territory the USSR once occupied, which he – contrary to the principles of the Soviet Union – seems to conflate with some variant of a Greater Russia.

Back in 2005, Putin said, “the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster in which tens of millions of our co-citizens and compatriots found themselves outside Russian territory.”

The question then becomes, what to do about it. The answer can’t be the violation of the national right to self-determination of entities, like Ukraine, that were part of the Soviet Union. Diplomacy, negotiations, and compromise, not war, have to be the path to a solution. Warfare only serves the interest of the capitalist rulers.

Here In the streets of Berlin, several anti-war posters can be seen decorating walls and garbage cans alongside those advertising the city’s hedonistic party scene. Some of these appear to be the work of liberal do-gooders, clearly people who are not very political but who feel morally repulsed by the idea of war on their doorstep.

Others take on a stronger political bent. One of these is a “No War!” poster written in Russian that was designed by Germany’s Union for the Persecutees of the Nazi Regime – Federation of Antifascists (VVN-BdA). An organization that at last count numbered around 6,000 members, it has been Germany’s longest-running group of former concentration camp inmates and political prisoners from the Nazi period, dating back to 1947. Much of its work today consists of fighting the emergence of the far-right and explicitly neo-Nazis organizations in Germany.

The VVN-BdA knows what Nazism means in practice – and it does not buy the pretext provided by Russia for its neo-Tsarist invasion. In its statement on the day of the invasion, they paid ample attention to the context that precipitated the invasion, writing “Pro-Western forces supported by Germany, among others, but also organizations that go back to the traditions of Ukrainian National Socialism are fighting with pro-Russian ones.”

Commenting further on the invasion they added, “The mere existence of the sovereign Ukrainian state is increasingly being denied by the Russian president, resorting to historical analogies that have been used incorrectly or even abusively…There will only be long-term peace in Europe if striving for great power, nationalism, chauvinism, and authoritarianism are overcome in all countries.”

While indeed recognizing the role of the western imperialist countries – including Germany – in sowing the seeds of the current war, the VVN-BdA also sees the hypocrisy coming from Vladimir Putin. Diplomacy, a neutral Ukraine, swearing off of any plans to join NATO, and withdrawal of Russian troops are the only way to go in solving a crisis that could drag us into World War III.

Important, however, is to remember that lining up behind the rearmament of NATO and the flooding of its eastern flank with weapons, while forgetting that NATO is an imperialist bloc that protects monopoly capital – not the working class – is a fatal mistake.

How awful it is to see that at a memorial in this city to the Soviet soldiers, among them Ukrainians, who liberated Berlin from the Nazis, Ukrainian flags have been thrown over the Soviet tank that stands there, in an attempt to diminish the heroic role of a multi-national Soviet Union in the fight against fascism.

On my block, there is a venue called the Care Moskau which, in the GDR days, was a restaurant. Now it’s a place for conferences and meetings and on weekends is converted into a nightclub. There is a great mosaic that represents all the nationalities of the old Soviet Union. For fear of repercussions, the lit sign is now turned off at night.

It’s clear that the primary warmonger, the main threat to peace, has historically been U.S. imperialism along with its junior European and NATO partners – that is, the now self-proclaimed “international community.”  We should reject their hypocrisy, point out their responsibility for getting us to where we are now, and demand that our governments stop engaging in the slippery slope to a nuclear confrontation.


Marcel Cartier
Marcel Cartier

Marcel Cartier is a critically acclaimed hip-hop artist, journalist, and the author of two books on the Kurdish liberation movement, including 2019’s Serkeftin: A Narrative of the Rojava Revolution, which was one of the first full accounts in English of the civil and political structures set up in northern Syria after 2012.