Listen to the Episode — 92 min
Hello everyone, and welcome back to another episode of the Ex-Worker. As we record this, Russian tanks are encircling the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv and hundreds of thousands of refugees are fleeing the falling bombs. At the same time, Ukrainians are fighting ferociously to resist the invasion against overwhelming odds, while anti-war protesters across Russia are bringing the resistance home, in the face of intense police repression.
Here at CrimethInc. and the Ex-Worker, we’ve been in communication with anarchists around the region, trying to piece together what’s happening and how to offer support and amplify the voices of our comrades who are impacted by the invasion. This episode collects some of the material we’ve published in recent weeks to provide critical context for what’s happening in Ukraine today.
We’ll start with a long piece called “Between Two Fires,” published a month ago as the threat of war was growing. It includes a range of anarchist voices from the region, often disagreeing on analysis and strategy, but united in trying to find a path forward that challenges all empires. You’ll hear about the history of Ukraine since the collapse of the Soviet empire, the Maidan protest movement that overthrew President Yanukovich in 2014, the origins of the war in eastern Ukraine and the Russian annexation of Crimea, the ongoing military conflict and tensions, and the political anxieties that have led to this escalation. We also share a long essay collaboratively written by a group of Ukrainian anarchists that details the evolution of the anarchist movement over this period, surveys the different political forces that populate the landscape, and assess the risks and revolutionary potentials in the current situation. And we conclude with a short statement issued by Russian anarchists on the outbreak of war, to highlight how anti-authoritarians on both sides of the borders share a commitment to resisting Russian imperialism while working towards a broader vision of liberation.
One more note before we get started. We know now what we didn’t know when these texts were written: that Putin was in going to fact command a full-scale military invasion of Ukraine. Knowing this, some of the parts of the texts you’ll hear will sound odd in retrospect; but we’ve decided purposely to leave them as they were written. So, for example, when we decided to leave in the views expressed by some Ukrainian anarchists that a Russian invasion was unlikely, it’s not to say “we told you so.” It’s to show that the way things have played out did not seem inevitable to people on the ground, just days before the invasion hit; and to indicate how challenging it is to predict the direction events will go amidst barrages of disinformation and competing imperial agendas with their own media mouthpieces. For those of you listening right now as the bombs are falling, we hope this episode provides critical context for understanding how we got here; for those of you listening months or years in the future, we help it gives an indication of how anarchists were evaluating the situation in the lead-up to war, for insights into how we might learn to better analyze the complex situations of conflict we’ll surely find ourselves facing in the future.
There’s a tremendous amount of disinformation floating around, largely originating from Russian propaganda (but also from pro-NATO forces, too). Unfortunately, some sectors of the left in the US and beyond have uncritically adopted many of Putin’s talking points: that Ukraine’s government is actually controlled by fascists, and that the Russian invasion is not imperialism, but a defensive or even anti-fascist or anti-Nazi action. We hope that the following reports, all of which were authored by anarchists in the region and vetted and fact-checked as thoroughly as we could, will help you listeners orient yourselves and figure out pathways to solidarity.
It’s been challenging to stay in contact with comrades who are fighting for their very lives in a rapidly changing situation. But as we finish this episode, we’re already working on a second that will be released soon after, in which we’ll feature firsthand accounts from the invasion in Ukraine and from the anti-war resistance in Russia. So stay tuned for that. But for now, we hope you’ll find this background and analysis useful to understand what’s happening today. So - let’s get started.
Between Two Fires
We open this episode’s discussion of the Russian war in Ukraine with a text we first published on February 3rd, Between Two Fires: Ukrainian Anarchists on the Looming Threat of War.
How are we to understand the conflict that is playing out over the Russian troops that are currently massed on the Ukrainian border? Is it just a performance from both sides, aimed at securing leverage and destabilizing the opposition?
Unfortunately, in today’s volatile global context, even the most experienced geopolitical players could go into a showdown planning only to do a little saber-rattling and still end up in over their heads. Perhaps all that is taking place is brinksmanship, but it could still eventually lead to war. The past month has seen Russian troops deploy to Kazakhstan and Belarus, securing Putin’s role as a guarantor of dictatorships and indicating the extent of his ambitions, not to mention the precarious balance of power throughout the entire region. The United States is now deploying troops to Eastern Europe as well, ratcheting up the tension in pursuit of rival imperial ambitions. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who began 2021 by taking the offensive against Putin’s allies in Ukraine, recently asked the Biden administration to dial back its doomsaying; this does not indicate that the threat of war is not real, but rather that Zelensky still has to look out for the Ukrainian economy—whether war looms for weeks, months, or years.
The prospect of a Russian invasion poses thorny questions for anarchists. How do we oppose Russian military aggression without simply playing into the agenda of the United States and other governments? How do we continue to oppose Ukrainian capitalists and fascists without helping the Russian government to craft a narrative to justify direct or indirect intervention? How do we prioritize both the lives and the freedom of ordinary people in Ukraine and the neighboring countries?
And what if war is not the only danger here? How do we avoid reducing our movements to subsidiaries of statist forces while remaining relevant in a time of escalating conflict? How do we continue to organize against all forms of oppression even in the midst of war, without adopting the same logic as state militaries?
This is not the first time that events in Ukraine have posed difficult questions. In 2014, during the occupation of the Maidan1 that ultimately toppled the government of Viktor Yanukovych, nationalists and fascists gained power within the movement. As one witness wrote at the time:
“The Ukrainian leftist and anarchist movement as a whole found itself between two fires. If the Maidan protest wins… it is already possible to predict the strengthening and emergence of new ultra-right organizations focused on the use of violence and terror against political opponents. If Yanukovych wins, then a wave of the most severe repression will indiscriminately hit all who are disloyal to the authorities.” -Lviv, February 19-21, 2014
It’s important to emphasize that nothing was inevitable about this: a more vibrant anarchist movement could have produced different results in Kiev, as it did in Kharkiv.
At the time, we described the ascendance of fascists in the Maidan protests as “a reactionary counterattack within the space of social movements”:
This may be a sign of worse things to come—we can imagine a future of rival fascisms, in which the possibility of a struggle for real liberation becomes completely invisible. Today, we are eight years further into that future. The tragedies in Ukraine—from 2014 through the Russian-backed insurgency in the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk up to the present day—show the catastrophic consequences of the weakness of anti-authoritarian movements within Russia, Ukraine, and the United States.
In this context, we see state actors on both sides of the conflict mobilizing the discourses of anti-fascism and anti-imperialism to recruit volunteers and to delegitimize their adversaries. Fascists and self-described anti-fascists alike have fought on both sides of the Russia/Ukraine conflict for years already, just as supporters of each side have described the other side as imperialist. As we get deeper into the 21st century, there will likely be more and more armed struggles seeking to recruit anarchists and other anti-fascists and anti-imperialists. We should neither make ourselves irrelevant by standing aside from all confrontations nor let a sense of urgency propel us into costly bad decisions. Likewise, if we excuse ourselves from taking any position on the grounds that the situation is messy and there are not-so-fine people on both sides, we will share responsibility for the massacres that ensue.
Before presenting the perspectives from Ukraine, we’ll review some of the other proposals regarding how anarchists might engage.
In his text, “Why should we support Ukraine?,” Antti Rautiainen, a Finnish anarchist who spent years in Russia, argues that the most important priority is to oppose a Russian war of conquest:
The results of the first 30 years of “democracy” in Ukraine are, to put it mildly, unconvincing. The economy and the media are in the hands of rival oligarchs, corruption is at staggering levels, economic development lags behind many African countries, and in addition, the country has become the center of the neo-Nazi movement around the world. And these problems are basically home-grown, not the result of the Kremlin’s intrigues.
Yet the alternative is even worse.
Putin’s government represents the KGB without socialism. As we have documented, Putin’s underlings routinely use torture and fabricated conspiracy cases alongside old-fashioned police violence to suppress dissent. According to Antti, “Putin is not the gendarme of Europe, but the gendarme of the whole world”—from Syria to Myanmar, whenever a dictator tortures and kills thousands of his own people, Putin is there to support him.
Antti argues, contrary to the anarchist interviewed below, that in the event of a Russian invasion, anarchists should support the Ukrainian military, and in the event of a Russian occupation, should be prepared to cooperate directly with a statist resistance organization, should a powerful one exist.
This raises a variety of difficult questions. Are anarchists in a position to offer useful assistance to a state military? If they can, should they? How could they support the Ukrainian military without thereby enabling it to be more dangerous to social movements and minorities inside Ukraine, not to mention legitimizing the fascist Azov regiment? One of the principles of three-sided warfare is that you must not strengthen one adversary in order to defeat another. This is illustrated by the misfortunes of anarchists in Ukraine a century ago, who prioritized defeating the reactionary White Army only to be betrayed and assassinated by Trotsky’s Red Army.
Likewise, if anarchists are going to work alongside statist groups—as has already occurred in Rojava and elsewhere—that makes it all the more important to articulate a critique of state power and to develop a nuanced framework by which to evaluate the results of such experiments.
The best alternative to militarism would be to build an international movement that could incapacitate the military forces of all nations. We have seen understandable expressions of cynicism from Ukrainian radicals regarding the likelihood that ordinary Russians will do anything to hinder Putin’s war efforts. This calls to mind the 2019 revolt in Hong Kong, which some participants also framed in ethnic terms. In fact, the only thing that could preserve Hong Kong from the domination of the Chinese government would be powerful revolutionary movements inside China proper.
Considering that Russia was able to establish a foothold for its agenda within the Donbas region in Ukraine in part because of tensions between Ukrainian and Russian identity, anti-Russian sentiment will only play into Putin’s hands. Anything that polarizes against Russian people, language, or culture will facilitate the Russian state’s efforts to create little breakaway republics. Likewise, looking at the history of nationalism, we can see that any resistance to Russian military aggression that deepens the power of Ukrainian nationalism will only pave the way for future bloodshed.
Regarding the prospect of war, anarchists from Belarus have articulated some of its many drawbacks in an article titled If Only There Was No War:
“Anarchists have never welcomed wars because they distract the population from the real problems that surround us on a constant basis. Instead of striving for freedom, the populace begins to discuss the successes of advancement on the front lines. The place of international solidarity is taken by nationalism, which has turned brothers, sisters and comrades into mortal enemies. There is nothing progressive about war. War is the triumph of a misanthropic ideology of power. Today, as always, war is the business of the rulers, except that ordinary people die in it. In a patriotic trance, or simply for the money.”
Yet the global anarchist movement is not in a position to offer people in Ukraine a surefire alternative to war. Just as the uprising in Kazakhstan was ultimately crushed by brute force, nearly all of the uprisings around the world since 2019 have failed to overthrow the governments they challenged. We are in a time of interlinked worldwide repression and we have yet to solve the fundamental problems it poses. The bloody civil war that drew out in Syria—partly as a consequence of Putin’s support for Assad—offers an example of what many parts of the world may look like if revolutions continue to fail and civil wars emerge in their place. We may not be able to forestall the wars ahead, but it is still up to us to figure out how to continue to pursue revolutionary change amidst them.
It is worth noting, in passing, that at least one Ukrainian anarchist, an editor of the magazine Assembly in Kharkov, does not seem to be particularly concerned about a Russian invasion of Ukraine, considering it an overblown fabrication of Western media outlets. Hopefully this person is correct—though we note that Russian and Belarusian media have also been publishing dramatic stories about a looming conflict over Ukraine.
Finally, we would like to call attention to this communiqué from an action in Sweden expressing solidarity with rebels in Kazakhstan by targeting a trailer belonging to Shell Corporation in order to call attention to the complicity of Western oil corporations in the bloodshed in Kazakhstan and other places threatened by Russia. Though clandestine actions are no substitute for powerful movements, the action admirably succeeds in showing the way that Russian autocracy is interlinked with Western capitalists: Russian bayonets defended the throne of Putin’s vassal Tokayev. But not only him. Just look at oil production, one of the main branches of Kazakhstan’s economy. Western corporations have a huge stake in the country’s oil sector. If the rebels won, the property of these corporations could be expropriated by the people. Russian intervention and suppression of the uprising provided bloody “stability” not only for the oligarchic regime, but also for Western capitalists parasitizing on the natural resources of Kazakhstan.
One of the Western corporations active in Kazakhstan is the British-Dutch Shell. Thus, at the Karachaganak field, one of the three largest in the country, its share is about 30%. And these are not the only assets of the corporation in Kazakhstan. It is not surprising at all that the Russian regime sent troops to protect the wealth of Shell’s owners. Shell has invested in the construction of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline and has consistently lobbied for the interests of the Russian regime in European politics. (…)
The theory and practice that unites resistance to dictatorships, capitalism, imperialist wars, and the destruction of nature into a single great struggle is anarchism. The achievement of true freedom from all forms of oppression will take place under the black banner of anarchy.
Now the Russian state may unleash another imperialist war. We want to appeal to the Russian soldiers: you are sent to kill and die for the interests of greedy and cruel rulers and the rich. If a war breaks out, desert with your weapons, disarm the officers, join the revolutionary movement.
INTERVIEW: “ANARCHISTS AND WAR IN UKRAINE”
We’ll now share an excerpt from an interview was conducted by a Belarusian anarchist currently living abroad with an anarchist activist involved in different struggles in Ukraine. The audio version can be found from Elephant in the Room, a Dresden-based anarchist audio project. You can find a link to the full interview on our website, crimethinc.com/podcasts.
Ukrainian Anarchist: First of all, thanks a lot for having me here.
About the position of Ukraine after the Soviet Union collapsed, I would say that it was quite turbulent. It passed through several different phases. Under President [Leonid] Kuchma and through most of the 1990s, it was a loose state of different oligarchical groups competing for different spheres of power. (To some extent, it exists like this through today.) But also, it’s important to note that in this period, in the 1990s, the Russian state’s policy was very different from how it is now. Under the Yeltsin presidency, it was not a particularly imperialist policy, as far as I can estimate at least. Of course, there was very close interaction between the two governments, both business and state authorities between Russia and Ukraine. But it was not as though Ukraine was expected to be subordinate to Russia, even though a lot of economic ties and dependencies had already existed already between Russia and Ukraine within the Soviet Union, ties which continued to exist after it collapsed.
The situation changed when Kuchma left the presidency and a competition between the [Ukrainian] Presidents [Viktor] Yanukovych and [Viktor] Yushchenko emerged. Viktor Yushchenko represented this more Western- and national-oriented perspective. This conflict came to its peak during the first Maidan protests1 in 2004, I would say. Yushchenko won, and because of this, this more Western course of politics and this course of distancing from Russia was the prevailing political current for a while in Ukraine. In 2008, when the war in Georgia (over southern Ossetia) happened, Ukraine definitely took sides—just politically, not militarily—more with the Georgian side of that conflict.
But it’s important to understand that within Ukraine, there are many different cultural groups, groups of business and political interests, and groups of different ideological tendencies. They are not all equal to each other. It’s a really complex and multi-layered mosaic, which creates a lot of confusion and a lot of different political currents and developments. These are not easy to follow and understand even from inside of Ukraine, sometimes.
So even though Yushchenko won for a while, conflict existed between—for example—more Western and more anti-Russian oriented groups of the population, on one side, and on the other side, more pro-Russian groups, or, I might say, groups with a post-Soviet or Soviet mentality. And this conflict was also taking place between political groups that promoted a more Western course and those, like some oligarchical clans and mafia clans, who were more open to interacting with Russia and with the Russian authorities. It’s important to understand that in Ukraine, there is a lot of corruption; a lot of shady politics are going on behind closed doors all the time. Much more than in Europe, for example—even though we all know that in Europe these also exist—the official declarations of the local authorities don’t necessarily correspond with their actual activities.
So after the presidency of Yushchenko, Yanukovych returned to running for the presidency and finally won elections [in 2010]. After this, the situation became very unclear, because he took a very sly approach, I would say—constantly trying to pretend to deal both with the West and with Russian authorities. Because of this, he created a lot of confusion within the population. After first making some agreements with the European Union, he unexpectedly tried to cancel them and to move more officially into the sphere of Russian influence. This created a lot of disagreement and unrest, which gave rise to the [second] Maidan protests, which started in the late autumn of 2013.
Interviewer: This year started as a huge shitstorm. Russians invaded Kazakhstan with their partners and helped to stabilize the Tokayev regime. Now there is the possibility of a war in Ukraine. Can you give your thoughts on why Putin started these really aggressive moves so quickly? It’s been several months, I think, since they started moving the army to the Ukrainian border, and the Kazakh crisis, and so on. What are your thoughts on the reasons why this is happening?
Ukrainian Anarchist: Speaking very generally and overall, the Putin regime is in a desperate situation. On the one hand, it is still very powerful, having a lot of resources and a lot of control over its own territory. But at the same time, their power is slipping away like sand between their fingers. In different places, there are clear cracks in this Putin-designed system of border states that are supposed to be satellites of his regime, like Kazakhstan, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, and Armenia. Very big social currents, major social uprisings and protests, are taking place in every country I just mentioned. Geopolitically, there is a serious threat that his control over these neighboring territories will decrease.
Also, internally, the economic situation in Russia started to degrade since 2014, actually since these Maidan events, the Crimean takeover, and the big sanctions from the Western powers against Russia. It triggered a constant economic decrease, and now a lot of the popularity that Putin gained after the Crimean takeover is already gone. Also, this was galvanized under the COVID-19 pandemic, which didn’t contribute at all to his popularity among the population. Now, to a big extent, he is not that popular of a leader even inside Russia.
So this is the situation, if you are Putin: you are still very powerful, but at the same time, you see situations playing out that are not in your favor. I think all these aggressions are desperate attempts to prevent his power from slipping away, to somehow still preserve his authoritarian rule.
Interviewer: Speaking of the politics of the current government, how would you describe them? I remember Zelensky being a populist—like saying, yeah, we will fight corruption, we will make everybody happy, and so on. What are his politics right now? There is also a narrative that I hear in the Western hemisphere that the war doesn’t matter so much because it’s basically replacing one fascist regime with another fascist regime. How much do the politics and “liberal freedoms” in Ukraine differ from Russia right now?
Ukrainian anarchist: First of all, the Zelensky regime is definitely not fascist, at least not right now—if only because it still does not have that much control. This is because in Ukraine, the state’s power is not as consolidated as it is in Russia or in Belarus. But this regime is still in no way “good,” of course. They are still corrupt liars who are doing basically neoliberal bullshit. This is the design of most of their politics, I would say. But still, this country is much less authoritarian in its social structure, at least, even though it’s super shitty in its economic structure. This is the reason why so many political dissidents from Belarus, Russia, and also Kazakhstan, too, for example, are sheltering here. Because here, there is not such a unified state line, there is not that much opportunity or possibility for the state to control and design the entire social landscape—even though, as I said before, the state is trying to do it more now.
So a takeover of Ukraine by the Russian authorities or a clearly pro-Russian government will be a catastrophe, because a somewhat freer area—or I would say, more of a “gray zone,” as Ukraine is now—will shift to being under the control of the authoritarian and harsh dictatorship of Putin. To be clear, the Ukrainian state is still a super shitty populist regime that has not made any positive political steps, as far as I can tell, since Zelensky came into power. The only concrete step which I can remember right now was this law about agricultural lands, which can be now freely bought and sold on the market, whereas before there were some obstacles. We believe that this legislation will soon result in the concentration of agricultural lands in the hands of several big agricultural corporations. So all the neoliberal politics like this are being put into place.
But still, we see a lot of poverty, both in Ukraine and in Russia. Of course, Ukraine is a poorer country because it doesn’t have as much oil and gas. But if Russia will occupy Ukraine, do we really believe that local working class and poor people will gain some economic benefits from the new occupation regime? Of course not. It’s really hard for me to believe in that. Because the Russian economic situation is getting worse and worse, and they simply have no resources to share with other people. To construct this big bridge from continental Russia to Crimea, it necessitated ceasing the construction of several bridges in Siberia and in other parts of Russia. So they have no resources to share with local people here, even if they would want to buy them off somehow. And in the sphere of politics and society, of course, we can expect nothing better from the Putin regime. In terms of dictatorship, regarding state control and state oppression, the Putin regime is currently much more dangerous than the local regime. The local regime is not “better,” it is just less powerful.
You can hear the full interview we excerpted here from Elephant in the Room, via the link on our website, crimethinc.com/podcasts](https://crimethinc.com/podcasts). For the final section of the “Between Two Fires” article, we share a first person account and analysis from an anarchist who grew up in part of the contested territory claimed by Russia, who assesses the difficulties facing anarchists caught between rival nationalisms and militarisms.
A VIEW FROM KIEV
Ukraine has been at war with Russia and its proxies for eight years now. The death toll has already exceeded 14,000. Yet as Russian troops gather along our northern and eastern borders, it’s the first time in the history of this war—or even in the entire history of Ukraine as I recall it—that I am regularly receiving messages from my foreign friends, some of whom I haven’t heard from in years, all eager to learn whether I am safe and if the threat is as significant as they have been told. These friends vary in their political views, ages, occupations, life experiences, and backgrounds. The one thing they all have in common is that they’re all from the United States.
The rest of my comrades around the world seem to have less anxiety about this. Last week, I hosted one friend from Greece and another from Germany, both of whom seemed surprised to learn that they had landed in a country that is supposed to become the epicenter of the Third World War any minute now (which is probably why their plane tickets only cost eight euros). I would have been surprised, too, if it weren’t for the fact that I also happen to watch US television myself. Over the past few weeks, I noticed a surge of references to Ukraine’s situation on all sorts of talk shows I see online. It almost feels as if there’s more talk about Ukraine in the United States now than there was during Joe Biden’s son’s corruption scandal.
For a Ukrainian, what you feel in response to this sudden rise in interest in our endless fight against our abusive imperialist neighbor will depend on your political stance. When we agreed to give up our nuclear weapons in 1994, joining the Budapest memorandum, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the USA promised to respect and protect the independence, sovereignty, and existing borders of Ukraine and to refrain from any threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine. When all of those promises were proven to be completely worthless just twenty years later, many people here couldn’t help but feel betrayed. Many of these people now feel like it’s right about time for the US to step up its game delivering on its promises. Without this context, it would be extremely challenging to understand why some people in Ukraine would applaud when an offshore empire that refers to Ukraine as “Russia’s backyard” flies war planes filled with soldiers over this sovereign country.
However, there are some others in Ukraine who, like myself, don’t limit their mistrust to the empire that we are unfortunate enough to share a border with, but extend this well-earned lack of confidence to the rest of them. Even for the people who truly believe that the enemy of their enemy is their friend, it’s worth asking how many such friends that the US has made around the world—Vietnamese, Afghans, Kurds, and more—have not regretted acquiring such an ally.
This fairly low bar of critical thinking is unfortunately not nearly as common in Ukraine as short-sighted patriotism, nationalism, and militarism, all of which are gaining momentum here as war hysteria grows. In Ukraine, there is not much discussion about why we are finally being noticed by the US and UK now, after eight painful years of losing lives and territories—including my hometown of Lugansk. And this absence of curiosity about the motives of the empires works both ways: just as most of us couldn’t care less what Biden’s administration stands to gain from this power play, our understanding of why Putin would attempt to invade further now is limited to “This bloodthirsty maniac is simply mad.” Hardly anyone entertains a possibility that there could be something more going on.
Even fewer question the claim that Russia has indeed increased its presence on the Ukrainian border in a way that makes our current situation more threatening than it was a year ago.
I am not saying that the threat of the invasion of the very real Russian troops amassing at our borders is insignificant. But I question whether the involvement of the US is truly aimed at de-escalating this conflict to benefit the people of Ukraine.
Unfortunately, being here on the ground doesn’t really give me any particular expertise to rely on. Back in early 2014, seeing everything that was happening around the country, I refused to believe that Ukraine was about to go to war until the very moment it happened. In retrospect, it seems like it was inevitable. Now, none of us truly know if the war will happen, and if it does, when it will escalate.
Some people have already fled the country. Most people can’t afford even a brief short-distance trip abroad, so they are bound to keep calm and carry on. Beyond corruption and war, the reason why most people in Ukraine are so desperately poor may or may not coincide with the fact that Ukraine outlawed communism in 2015 and is currently the only country in Europe in which the parliament consists entirely of different shades of right-wing parties.
When events like this unfold almost 6000 miles away from you, it’s natural for an overseas anti-authoritarian to seek to make sure that they’re not rooting for the bad people. Not everyone standing up for themselves is Zapatistas, Kurds, or Catalonians. A wide spectrum of different groups around the world resist imperialist aggression. On this spectrum, many of the people claiming to guard Ukraine fall much closer to groups like Hezbollah and Hamas. Are many of them xenophobic, conservative, sexist, homophobic, anti-Semitic, racist, pro-capitalist, or even outright fascist? Yes. But are they fighting an uneven fight against an extremely powerful and violent neighboring state, in which they seem to be the only hope for any meaningful resistance whatsoever? Also yes.
And these aren’t the hardest questions.
If an autocratic empire is trying to destroy another state that is defended, in part, by fascists, do we sit back and rejoice there are going to be a few less fascists in the world? What if the deaths will also include thousands of innocent people who are trying to defend themselves or are simply at the wrong place at the wrong time? Do we step in, understanding that these divisions between people only benefit those who are already powerful, never the people being divided?
This begs another question: what does “stepping in” mean? Is there a way to “step in” here that is both substantial and without negative consequences? Neither of the two strategies that the United States has employed so far have shown much success. Antagonizing Russia only makes things worse for everyone, while many people here believe that the alternative—expressing “deep concern” without standing in Putin’s way—is what led to the war getting started in 2014 in the first place. This is why I doubt that any solution to the problem of the imperial appetite that doesn’t involve the simultaneous abolition of both empires can be anything more than a band-aid for an issue of this scale. The truth is, Ukraine is not the first victim of the hunger for power, nor will it be the last. As long as we keep these monsters alive, it won’t matter whether they are friends or foes, tamed or rabid, chained or free. They will always be hungry.
I do hope, however, that there is still a lot more that people in the US and the rest of the world can do. I hope we can all organize and create communities that transcend the superficial divisions imposed on us by the noxious ideologies of capitalism, conservatism, and individualism, striving to remember that it is only when we are separated, segregated, careless of one another, or at each other’s throats that we are truly weak and helpless. With education and solidarity, we can try to create a world in which a senseless conflict like this would make even less sense. Until we can do that, we can do our very best to provide support to those around the world who fall victim to these cruel wars.
What does this mean, concretely, right now, here in Ukraine? And in the meantime, does the fact that many people fighting for Ukraine are indeed fascists mean that all the people who are hiding behind their backs—including me—are also liable for their politics? Here, we are getting into the harder questions.
But no one is addressing these questions here. The people of Ukraine are all busy taking first aid and gun handling classes—or learning where the city shelters are—or, mostly, just struggling to get by. There’s no all-out panic here, just dull weariness. The threat of the big war remains very real; if it occurs, it is unlikely that it will result in anything other than an even weaker, worse, and smaller Ukraine than the one we already have. And I really can’t recommend even the current version.
All that being said, it’s also worth admitting that I will not risk my life fighting for this country against the Russian army. I will probably do my best to evacuate if Kiev becomes even more unlivable than it already is. This is admittedly the intention of a person with some privileges. Most of the people here have absolutely nowhere to go.
WAR AND ANARCHISTS: ANTI-AUTHORITARIAN PERSPECTIVES IN UKRAINE
Next, we’ll share an article composed by anarchists in Ukraine, originally published on February 15th, that gives context for how some participants in social movements there see the difficult events that have played out there over the past nine years. We believe that it is important for people everywhere to grapple with the events they describe below and the questions that those developments pose.
This text was composed together by several active anti-authoritarian activists from Ukraine. We do not represent one organization, but we came together to write this text and prepare for a possible war. Besides us, the text was edited by more than ten people, including participants in the events described in the text, journalists who checked the accuracy of our claims, and anarchists from Russia, Belarus, and Europe. We received many corrections and clarifications in order to write the most objective text possible.
If war breaks out, we do not know if the anti-authoritarian movement will survive, but we will try to do so. In the meantime, this text is an attempt to leave the experience that we have accumulated online.
At the moment, the world is actively discussing a possible war between Russia and Ukraine. We need to clarify that the war between Russia and Ukraine has been going on since 2014. But first things first.
THE MAIDAN PROTESTS IN KYIV
In 2013, mass protests began in Ukraine, triggered by Berkut (police special forces) beating up student protesters who were dissatisfied with the refusal of then-President Viktor Yanukovych to sign the association agreement with the European Union. This beating functioned as a call to action for many segments of society. It became clear to everyone that Yanukovych had crossed the line. The protests ultimately led to the president fleeing.
In Ukraine, these events are called “The Revolution of Dignity.” The Russian government presents it as a Nazi coup, a US State Department project, and so on. The protesters themselves were a motley crowd: far-right activists with their symbols, liberal leaders talking about European values and European integration, ordinary Ukrainians who went out against the government, a few leftists. Anti-oligarchic sentiments dominated among the protesters, while oligarchs who did not like Yanukovych financed the protest because he, along with his inner circle, tried to monopolize big business during his term. That is to say—for other oligarchs, the protest represented a chance to save their businesses. Also, many representatives of mid-size and small businesses participated in the protest because Yanukovych’s people did not allow them to work freely, demanding money from them. Ordinary people were dissatisfied with the high level of corruption and arbitrary conduct of the police. The nationalists who opposed Yanukovych on the grounds that he was a pro-Russian politician reasserted themselves significantly. Belarusian and Russian expatriates joined protests, perceiving Yanukovych as a friend of Belarusian and Russian dictators Alexander Lukashenko and Vladimir Putin.
If you have seen videos from the Maidan rally, you might have noticed that the degree of violence was high; the protesters had no place to pull back to, so they had to fight to the bitter end. The Berkut wrapped stun grenades with screw nuts that left splinter wounds after the explosion, hitting people in their eyes; that is why there were many injured people. In the final stages of the conflict, the security forces used military weapons—killing 106 protesters.
In response, the protesters produced DIY grenades and explosives and brought firearms to the Maidan. The manufacturing of Molotov cocktails resembled small divisions.
In the 2014 Maidan protests, the authorities used mercenaries (titushkas), gave them weapons, coordinated them, and tried to use them as an organized loyalist force. There were fights with them involving sticks, hammers, and knives.
Contrary to the opinion that the Maidan was a “manipulation by the EU and NATO,” supporters of European integration had called for a peaceful protest, deriding militant protesters as stooges. The EU and the United States criticized the seizures of government buildings. Of course, “pro-Western” forces and organizations participated in the protest, but they did not control the entire protest. Various political forces including the far right actively interfered in the movement and tried to dictate their agenda. They quickly got their bearings and became an organizing force, thanks to the fact that they created the first combat detachments and invited everyone to join them, training and directing them.
However, none of the forces was absolutely dominant. The main trend was that it was a spontaneous protest mobilization directed against the corrupt and unpopular Yanukovych regime. Perhaps the Maidan can be classified as one of the many “stolen revolutions.” The sacrifices and efforts of tens of thousands of ordinary people were usurped by a handful of politicians who made their way to power and control over the economy.
THE ROLE OF ANARCHISTS IN THE PROTESTS OF 2014
Despite the fact that anarchists in Ukraine have a long history, during the reign of Stalin, everyone who was connected with the anarchists in any way was repressed and the movement died out, and consequently, the transfer of revolutionary experience ceased. The movement began to recover in the 1980s thanks to the efforts of historians, and in the 2000s it received a big boost due to the development of subcultures and anti-fascism. But in 2014, it was not yet ready for serious historical challenges.
Prior to the beginning of the protests, anarchists were individual activists or scattered in small groups. Few argued that the movement should be organized and revolutionary. Of the well-known organizations that were preparing for such events, there was Makhno Revolutionary Confederation of Anarcho-Syndicalists (RCAS of Makhno), but at the beginning of the riots, it dissolved itself, as the participants could not develop a strategy for the new situation.
The events of the Maidan were like a situation in which the special forces break into your house and you need to take decisive actions, but your arsenal consists only of punk lyrics, veganism, 100-year-old books, and at best, the experience of participating in street anti-fascism and local social conflicts. Consequently, there was a lot of confusion, as people attempted to understand what was happening.
At the time, it was not possible to form a unified vision of the situation. The presence of the far-right in the streets discouraged many anarchists from supporting the protests, as they did not want to stand beside Nazis on the same side of the barricades. This brought a lot of controversy into the movement; some people accused those who did decide to join the protests of fascism.
The anarchists who participated in the protests were dissatisfied with the brutality of the police and with Yanukovych himself and his pro-Russian position. However, they could not have a significant impact on the protests, as they were essentially in the category of outsiders.
In the end, anarchists participated in the Maidan revolution individually and in small groups, mainly in volunteer/non-militant initiatives. After a while, they decided to cooperate and make their own “hundred” (a combat group of 60-100 people). But during the registration of the detachment (a mandatory procedure on the Maidan), the outnumbered anarchists were dispersed by the far-right participants with weapons. The anarchists remained, but no longer attempted to create large organized groups.
Among those killed on the Maidan was the anarchist Sergei Kemsky who was, ironically, ranked as postmortem “Hero of Ukraine.” He was shot by a sniper during the heated phase of the confrontation with the security forces. During the protests, Sergei put forward an appeal to the protesters entitled “Do you hear it, Maidan?” in which he outlined possible ways of developing the revolution, emphasizing the aspects of direct democracy and social transformation. You can find a link to a English translation of the text on our website, crimethinc.com/podcasts.
THE BEGINNING OF THE WAR: THE ANNEXATION OF CRIMEA
The armed conflict with Russia began eight years ago on the night of February 26-27, 2014, when the Crimean Parliament building and the Council of Ministers were seized by unknown armed men. They used Russian weapons, uniforms, and equipment but did not have the symbols of the Russian army. Putin did not recognize the fact of the participation of the Russian military in this operation, although he later admitted it personally in the documentary propaganda film “Crimea: The way to the Homeland”.
Here, one needs to understand that during the time of Yanukovych, the Ukrainian army was in very poor condition. Knowing that there was a regular Russian army of 220,000 soldiers operating in Crimea, the provisional government of Ukraine did not dare to confront it. After the occupation, many residents have faced repression that continues to this day. Our comrades are also among the repressed. We can briefly review some of the most high-profile cases. Anarchist Alexander Kolchenko was arrested along with pro-democratic activist Oleg Sentsov and transferred to Russia on May 16, 2014; five years later, they were released as a result of a prisoner exchange. Anarchist Alexei Shestakovich was tortured, suffocated with a plastic bag on his head, beaten, and threatened with reprisals; he managed to escape. Anarchist Evgeny Karakashev was arrested in 2018 for a re-post on Vkontakte (a social network); he remains in custody.
Pro-Russian rallies were held in Russian-speaking cities close to the Russian border. The participants feared NATO, radical nationalists, and repression targeting the Russian-speaking population. After the collapse of the USSR, many households in Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus had family ties, but the events of the Maidan caused a serious split in personal relations. Those who were outside Kyiv and watched Russian TV were convinced that Kyiv had been captured by a Nazi junta and that there were purges of the Russian-speaking population there.
Russia launched a propaganda campaign using the following messaging: “punishers,” i.e., Nazis, are coming from Kyiv to Donetsk, they want to destroy the Russian-speaking population (although Kyiv is also a predominantly Russian-speaking city). In their disinformation statements, the propagandists used photos of the far right and spread all kinds of fake news. During the hostilities, one of the most notorious hoaxes appeared: the so-called crucifixion of a three-year-old boy who was allegedly attached to a tank and dragged along the road. In Russia, this story was broadcasted on federal channels and went viral on the Internet.
In 2014, in our opinion, disinformation played a key role in generating the armed conflict: some residents of Donetsk and Lugansk were scared that they would be killed, so they took up arms and called for Putin’s troops.
ARMED CONFLICT IN THE EAST OF UKRAINE
“The trigger of the war was pulled,” in his own words, by Igor Girkin, a colonel of the FSB (the state security agency, successors to the KGB) of the Russian Federation. Girkin, a supporter of Russian imperialism, decided to radicalize the pro-Russian protests. He crossed the border with an armed group of Russians and (on April 12, 2014) seized the Interior Ministry building in Slavyansk to take possession of weapons. Pro-Russian security forces began to join Girkin. When information about Girkin’s armed groups appeared, Ukraine announced an anti-terrorist operation.
A part of Ukrainian society determined to protect national sovereignty, realizing that the army had poor capacity, organized a large volunteer movement. Those who were somewhat competent in military affairs became instructors or formed volunteer battalions. Some people joined the regular army and volunteer battalions as humanitarian volunteers. They raised funds for weapons, food, ammunition, fuel, transport, renting civil cars, and the like. Often, the participants in the volunteer battalions were armed and equipped better than the soldiers of the state army. These detachments demonstrated a significant level of solidarity and self-organization and actually replaced the state functions of territorial defense, enabling the army (which was poorly equipped at that time) to successfully resist the enemy.
The territories controlled by pro-Russian forces began to shrink rapidly. Then the regular Russian army intervened.
We can highlight three key chronological points:
The Ukrainian military realized that weapons, volunteers, and military specialists were coming from Russia. Therefore, on July 12, 2014, they began an operation on the Ukrainian-Russian border. However, during the military march, the Ukrainian military was attacked by Russian artillery and the operation failed. The armed forces sustained heavy losses. The Ukrainian military attempted to occupy Donetsk. While they were advancing, they were surrounded by Russian regular troops near Ilovaisk. People we know, who were part of one of the volunteer battalions, were also captured. They saw the Russian military firsthand. After three months, they managed to return as the result of an exchange of prisoners of war. The Ukrainian army controlled the city of Debaltseve, which had a large railway junction. This disrupted the direct road linking Donetsk and Lugansk. On the eve of the negotiations between Poroshenka (the president of Ukraine at that time) and Putin, which were supposed to begin a long-term ceasefire, Ukrainian positions were attacked by units with the support of Russian troops. The Ukrainian army was again surrounded and sustained heavy losses.
For the time being (as of February 2022), the parties have agreed on a ceasefire and a conditional “peace and quiet” order, which is maintained, though there are consistent violations. Several people die every month.
Russia denies the presence of regular Russian troops and the supply of weapons to territories uncontrolled by the Ukrainian authorities. The Russian military who were captured claim that they were put on alert for a drill, and only when they arrived at their destination did they realize that they were in the middle of the war in Ukraine. Before crossing the border, they removed the symbols of the Russian army, the way their colleagues did in Crimea. In Russia, journalists have found cemeteries of fallen soldiers, but all information about their deaths is unknown: the epitaphs on the headstones only indicate the dates of their deaths as the year 2014.
SUPPORTERS OF THE UNRECOGNIZED REPUBLICS
The ideological basis of the opponents of the Maidan was also diverse. The main unifying ideas were discontent with violence against the police and opposition to rioting in Kyiv. People who were brought up with Russian cultural narratives, movies, and music were afraid of the destruction of the Russian language. Supporters of the USSR and admirers of its victory in World War II believed that Ukraine should be aligned with Russia and were unhappy with the rise of radical nationalists. Adherents of the Russian Empire perceived the Maidan protests as a threat to the territory of the Russian Empire. The ideas of these allies could be explained with this photo showing the flags of the USSR, the Russian Empire, and the St. George ribbon as a symbol of victory in the Second World War. We could portray them as authoritarian conservatives, supporters of the old order.
The pro-Russian side consisted of police, entrepreneurs, politicians, and the military who sympathized with Russia, ordinary citizens frightened by fake news, various ultra-right indivisuals including Russian patriots and various types of monarchists, pro-Russian imperialists, the Task Force group “Rusich,” the PMC [Private Military Company] group “Wagner,” including the notorious neo-Nazi Alexei Milchakov, the recently deceased Egor Prosvirnin, the founder of the chauvinistic Russian nationalist media project “Sputnik and Pogrom,” and many others. There were also authoritarian leftists, who celebrate the USSR and its victory in the Second World War.
THE RISE OF THE FAR RIGHT IN UKRAINE
As we described, the right wing managed to gain sympathy during the Maidan by organizing combat units and by being ready to physically confront the Berkut. The presence of military arms enabled them to maintain their independence and force others to reckon with them. In spite of their using overt fascist symbols such as swastikas, wolf hooks, Celtic crosses, and SS logos, it was difficult to discredit them, as the need to fight the forces of the Yanukovych government caused many Ukrainians to call for cooperation with them.
After the Maidan, the right wing actively suppressed the rallies of pro-Russian forces. At the beginning of the military operations, they started forming volunteer battalions. One of the most famous is the “Azov” battalion. At the beginning, it consisted of 70 fighters; now it is a regiment of 800 people with its own armored vehicles, artillery, tank company, and a separate project in accordance with NATO standards, the sergeant school. The Azov battalion is one of the most combat-effective units in the Ukrainian army. There were also other fascist military formations such as the Volunteer Ukrainian Unit “Right Sector” and the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, but they are less widely known. As a consequence, the Ukrainian right wing accrued a bad reputation in the Russian media. But many in Ukraine considered what was hated in Russia to be a symbol of struggle in Ukraine. For example, the name of the nationalist Stepan Bandera, who is known chiefly as a Nazi collaborator in Russia, was actively used by the protesters as a form of mockery. Some called themselves Judeo-Banderans to troll supporters of Jewish/Masonic conspiracy theories.
Over time, the trolling contributed to a rise in far-right activity. Right-wingers openly wore Nazi symbols; ordinary supporters of the Maidan claimed that they were themselves Banderans who eat Russian babies and made memes to that effect. The far right made its way into the mainstream: they were invited to participate in television shows and other corporate media platforms, on which they were presented as patriots and nationalists. Liberal supporters of the Maidan took their side, believing that the Nazis were a hoax invented by Russian media. In 2014 to 2016, anyone who was ready to fight was embraced, whether it was a Nazi, an anarchist, a kingpin from an organized crime syndicate, or a politician who did not carry out any of his promises.
The rise of the far right is due to the fact that they were better organized in critical situations and were able to suggest effective methods of fighting to other rebels. Anarchists provided something similar in Belarus, where they also managed to gain the sympathy of the public, but not on as significant of a scale as the far right did in Ukraine.
By 2017, after the ceasefire started and the need for radical fighters decreased, the SBU (Security Service of Ukraine) and the state government co-opted the right-wing movement, jailing or neutralizing anyone who had an “anti-system” or independent perspective on how to develop the right-wing movement.
Today, it is still a big movement, but their popularity is at a comparably low level and their leaders are affiliated with the Security service, police, and politicians; they do not represent a really independent political force. The discussions of the problem of the far-right are becoming more frequent within the democratic camp, where people are developing an understanding of the symbols and organizations they are dealing with, rather than silently dismissing concerns.
ANARCHISTS’ AND ANTI-FASCISTS’ ACTIVITY DURING THE WAR
With the outbreak of military operations, a division appeared between those who are pro-Ukrainian and those who support the so-called DNR/LNR (“Donetsk People’s Republic” and “Luhansk People’s Republic”).
There was a widespread “say no to war” sentiment within the punk scene during the first months of the war, but it did not last long. Let’s analyze the pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian camps.
Due to the lack of a massive organization, the first anarchist and anti-fascist volunteers went to war individually as single fighters, military medics, and volunteers. They tried to form their own squad, but due to lack of knowledge and resources, this attempt was unsuccessful. Some people even joined the Azov battalion and the OUN (Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists). The reasons were mundane: they joined the most accessible troops. Consequently, some people converted to right-wing politics.
[Editors’ note: Although we do not know the details of these events—and it is difficult to confirm them while the authors are in the midst of a full-scale war—obviously any supposed anti-fascist or “anarchist” who joined a fascist-organized militia was never really an anarchist in the first place. We preserve this paragraph as it arrived because we believe it is important to be critical and to center the voices of people in the midst of the events.]
People who didn’t take part in the battles raised funds for the rehabilitation of people injured in the East and for the construction of a bomb shelter in a kindergarten located near the front line. There was also a squat named “Autonomy” in Kharkiv, an open anarchist social and cultural center; at that time, they concentrated on helping the refugees. They provided housing and a permanent really free market, consulting with new arrivals and directing them to resources and conducting educational activities. In addition, the center became a place for theoretical discussions. Unfortunately, in 2018, the project ceased to exist.
All these actions were the individual initiatives of particular people and groups. They did not happen within the framework of a single strategy.
One of the most significant phenomena of that period was a formerly large radical nationalist organization, “Autonomnyi Opir”(Autonomous Resistance). They started leaning left in 2012; by 2014, they had shifted so much to the left that individual members would even call themselves “anarchists.” They framed their nationalism as a struggle for “liberty” and a counterbalance to Russian nationalism, using the Zapatista movement and the Kurds as role models. Compared to the other projects in Ukrainian society, they were seen as the closest allies, so some anarchists cooperated with them, while others criticized this cooperation and the organization itself. Members of the AO also actively participated in volunteer battalions and tried to develop the idea of “anti-imperialism” among the military. They also defended the right of women to participate in the war; female members of the AO participated in the combat operations. AO assisted training centers in training fighters and doctors, volunteered for the army, and organized the social center “Citadel” in Lviv where refugees were accommodated.
Modern Russian imperialism is built on the perception that Russia is the successor of the USSR—not in its political system, but on territorial grounds. The Putin regime sees the Soviet victory in World War II not as an ideological victory over Nazism, but as a victory over Europe that shows the strength of Russia. In Russia and the countries it controls, the population has less access to information, so Putin’s propaganda machine does not bother to create a complex political concept. The narrative is essentially as follows: The USA and Europe were afraid of the strong USSR, Russia is the successor of the USSR and the entire territory of the former USSR is Russian, Russian tanks entered Berlin, which means that “We can do it again” and we’ll show NATO who is the strongest here, the reason Europe is “rotting” is because all of the gays and emigrants are out of control there.
The ideological foundation maintaining a pro-Russian position among the left was the legacy of the USSR and its victory in World War II. Since Russia clams that the government in Kyiv was seized by Nazis and the junta, the opponents of the Maidan described themselves as fighters against fascism and the Kyiv junta. This branding induced sympathy among the authoritarian left—for example, in Ukraine, including the “Borotba” organization. During the most significant events of 2014, they first took a loyalist position and then later a pro-Russian position. In Odessa, on May 2, 2014, several of their activists were killed during street riots. Some people from this group also participated in the fighting in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions, and some of them died there.
“Borotba” described their motivation as wishing to fight against fascism. They urged the European left to stand in solidarity with the “Donetsk People’s Republic” and “Luhansk People’s Republic.” After the e-mail of Vladislav Surkov (Putin’s political strategist) was hacked, it was revealed that members of Borotba had received funding and were supervised by Surkov’s people.
Russia’s authoritarian communists embraced the breakaway republics for similar reasons.
The presence of far-right supporters in the Maidan also motivated apolitical anti-fascists to support the “DNR” and “LNR.” Again, some of them participated in the fighting in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions, and some of them died there.
Among Ukrainian anti-fascists, there were “apolitical” anti-fascists, subculturally-affiliated people who had a negative attitude towards fascism “because our grandfathers fought against it.” Their understanding of fascism was abstract: they themselves were often politically incoherent, sexist, homophobic, patriots of Russia, and the like.
The idea of supporting the so-called republics gained wide backing among the left in Europe. Most notable among its supporters were the Italian rock band “Banda Bassotti” and the German party Die Linke. In addition to fundraising, Banda Bassotti made a tour to “Novorossia.” Being in the European Parliament, Die Linke supported the pro-Russian narrative in every possible way and arranged video conferences with pro-Russian militants, going to Crimea and the unrecognized republics. The younger members of Die Linke, as well as the Rosa Luxembourg Foundation (the Die Linke party foundation), maintain that this position is not shared by every participant, but it is broadcast by the most prominent members of the party.
The pro-Russian position did not gain popularity among anarchists. Among individual statements, the most visible was the position of Jeff Monson, a mixed martial arts fighter from the USA who has tattoos with anarchist symbols. He previously considered himself an anarchist, but in Russia, he openly works for the ruling United Russia party and serves as a deputy in the Duma.
To summarize the pro-Russian “left” camp, we see the work of the Russian special services and the consequences of ideological incapacity. After the occupation of Crimea, employees of the Russian FSB approached local anti-fascists and anarchists in conversation, offering to permit them to continue their activities but suggesting that they should henceforward include the idea that Crimea should be a part of Russia in their agitation. In Ukraine, there are small informational and activist groups that position themselves as anti-fascist while expressing an essentially pro-Russian position; many people suspect them of working for Russia. Their influence is minimal in Ukraine, but their members serve Russian propagandists as “whistleblowers.”
There are also offers of “cooperation” from the Russian embassy and pro-Russian members of Parliament like Ilya Kiva. They try to play on the negative attitude towards Nazis like the Azov battalion and offer to pay people to change their position. At the moment, only Rita Bondar has openly admitted to receiving money in this way. She used to write for left-wing and anarchist media outlets, but due to the need for money, she wrote under a pseudonym for media platforms affiliated with the Russian propagandist Dmitry Kiselev.
In Russia itself, we are witnessing the elimination of the anarchist movement and the rise of authoritarian communists who are ousting anarchists from the anti-fascist subculture. One of the most indicative recent moments is the organizing of an anti-fascist tournament in 2021 in memory of “the Soviet soldier.”
IS THERE A THREAT OF FULL-SCALE WAR WITH RUSSIA? AN ANARCHIST POSITION
About ten years ago, the idea of a full-scale war in Europe would have seemed crazy, since secular European states in the 21st century seek to play up their “humanism” and mask their crimes. When they do engage in military operations, they do so somewhere far away from Europe. But when it comes to Russia, we have witnessed the occupation of Crimea and subsequent fake referendums, the war in Donbas, and the MH17 plane crash. Ukraine constantly experiences hacker attacks and bomb threats, not only in state buildings but also inside the schools and kindergartens.
In Belarus in 2020, Lukashenko boldly declared himself the winner of the elections with a result of 80% of the vote. The uprising in Belarus even led to a strike of Belarusian propagandists. But after the landing of Russian FSB planes, the situation changed dramatically and the Belarusian government succeeded in violently suppressing the protests.
A similar scenario played out in Kazakhstan, but there, the regular armies of Russia, Belarus, Armenia, and Kyrgyzstan were brought in to help the regime suppress the revolt as part of the CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organization) cooperation.
Russian special services lured refugees from Syria to Belarus in order to create a conflict on the border with the European Union. A group of the Russian FSB was also uncovered that was engaged in political assassinations using chemical weapons—the already familiar “novichok.” In addition to the Skripals and Navalny, they have also killed other political figures in Russia. Putin’s regime responds to all accusations by saying “It’s not us, you all are lying.” Meanwhile, Putin himself wrote an article half a year ago in which he asserts that Russians and Ukrainians are one nation and should be together. Vladislav Surkov (a political strategist who builds Russian state policy, connected with the puppet governments in the so-called DNR and LNR) published an article declaring that “the empire must expand, otherwise it will perish.” In Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan over the past two years, the protest movement has been brutally suppressed and independent and opposition media are being destroyed. We recommend reading more about Russia’s activities here.
All things considered, the likelihood of a full-scale war is high—and somewhat higher this year than last year. Even the sharpest analysts are unlikely to be able to predict exactly when it will start. Perhaps a revolution in Russia would relieve tension in the region; however, as we wrote above, the protest movement there has been smothered.
Anarchists in Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia mostly support Ukrainian independence directly or implicitly. This is because, even with all the national hysteria, corruption, and a large number of Nazis, compared to Russia and the countries controlled by it, Ukraine looks like an island of freedom. This country retains several features that are unique in the post-Soviet region as the replaceability of the president, a parliament that has more than nominal power, and the right to peaceful assembly; in some cases, factoring in additional attention from society, the courts sometimes even function according to their professed protocol. To say that this is preferable to the situation in Russia is not to say anything new. As Bakunin wrote, “We are firmly convinced that the most imperfect republic is a thousand times better than the most enlightened monarchy.”
There are many problems inside Ukraine, but these problems are more likely to be solved without the intervention of Russia.
Is it worth it to fight the Russian troops in the case of an invasion? We believe that the answer is yes. The options that Ukrainian anarchists are considering at the present moment include joining the armed forces of Ukraine, engaging in territorial defense, partisanship, and volunteering.
Ukraine is now at the forefront of the struggle against Russian imperialism. Russia has long-term plans to destroy democracy in Europe. We know that little attention has yet been paid to this danger in Europe. But if you follow the statements of high-profile politicians, far-right organizations, and authoritarian communists, over time, you will notice that there is already a large spy network in Europe. For example, some top officials, after leaving office, are given a position in a Russian oil company.
We consider the slogans “Say No to War” or “The War of Empires” to be ineffectual and populist. The anarchist movement has no influence on the process, so such statements do not change anything at all. Our position is based on the fact that we do not want to run away, we do not want to be hostages, and we do not want to be killed without a fight. You can look at Afghanistan and understand what “No to War” means: when the Taliban advances, people flee en masse, die in the chaos at the airports, and those who remain are purged. This describes what is happening in Crimea and you can imagine what will happen after the invasion of Russia in other regions of Ukraine.
As for the attitude towards NATO, the authors of this text are divided between two standpoints. Some of us have a positive approach towards this situation. It is obvious that Ukraine cannot counter Russia on its own. Even taking into consideration the large volunteer movement, modern technologies and weapons are needed. Apart from NATO, Ukraine has no other allies who can help with this.
Here, we can recall the story of Syrian Kurdistan. The locals were forced to cooperate with NATO against ISIS—the only alternative was to flee or be killed. We are well aware that support from NATO can disappear very quickly if the West develops new interests or manages to negotiate some compromises with Putin. Even now, the Self-Administration is forced to cooperate with the Assad regime, understanding that they don’t have much of an alternative.
A possible Russian invasion forces the Ukrainian people to look for allies in the fight against Moscow. Not on social media, but in the real world. Anarchists do not have sufficient resources in Ukraine or elsewhere to respond effectively to the invasion of Putin’s regime. Therefore, one has to think about accepting support from NATO.
The other standpoint, which others in this writing group subscribe to, is that both NATO and the EU, in strengthening their influence in Ukraine, will cement the current system of “wild capitalism” in the country and make the potential for a social revolution even less feasible. In the system of global capitalism, the flagship of which is the USA as the leader of NATO, Ukraine is assigned the spot of a humble frontier: a supplier of cheap labor and resources. Therefore, it is important for Ukrainian society to realize the need for independence from all the imperialists. In the context of the country’s defense capability, the emphasis should not be on the importance of NATO technology and support for the regular army, but on the potential of society for grassroots guerrilla resistance.
We consider this war primarily against Putin and the regimes under his control. In addition to the mundane motivation not to live under a dictatorship, we see potential in Ukrainian society, which is one of the most active, independent, and rebellious in the region. The long history of resistance of the people over the past thirty years is a solid proof of this. This gives us hope that the concepts of direct democracy have a fertile ground here.
THE CURRENT SITUATION OF ANARCHISTS IN UKRAINE AND NEW CHALLENGES
The outsider position during the Maidan and the war had a demoralizing effect on the movement. Outreach was hampered as Russian propaganda monopolized the word “anti-fascism.” Due to the presence of the symbols of the USSR among the pro-Russian militants, the attitude towards the word “communism” was extremely negative, so even the combination “anarcho-communism” was perceived negatively. The declarations against the pro-Ukrainian ultra-right cast a shadow of doubt on anarchists in the eyes of ordinary folks. There was an unspoken agreement that the ultra-right would not attack anarchists and anti-fascists if they did not display their symbols at rallies and the like. The right had a lot of weapons in their hands. This situation created a feeling of frustration; the police did not function well, so someone could easily be killed without consequences. For example, in 2015, the pro-Russian activist Oles Buzina was killed.
All this encouraged anarchists to approach the matter more seriously.
A radical underground began to develop starting from 2016; news about radical actions started to appear. Radical anarchist resources appeared that explained how to buy weapons and how to make caches, as opposed to the old ones, which were limited only to Molotov cocktails.
In the anarchist milieu, it has become acceptable to have legal weapons. Videos of anarchist training camps using firearms began to surface. Echoes of these changes reached Russia and Belarus. In Russia, the FSB liquidated a network of anarchist groups that had legal weapons and practiced airsoft. The arrestees were tortured with electric current in order to force them to confess to terrorism, and sentenced to terms ranging from 6 to 18 years. In Belarus, during the 2020 protests, a rebellious group of anarchists under the name “Black Flag” was detained while trying to cross the Belarusian-Ukrainian border. They had a firearm and a grenade with them; according to the testimony of Igor Olinevich, he bought the weapon in Kyiv.
The outdated approach of anarchists’ economic agenda has also changed: if before, the majority worked at low-paid jobs “closer to the oppressed,” now many are trying to find a job with a good salary, most often in the IT sector.
Street anti-fascist groups have resumed their activities, engaging in retaliatory actions in cases of Nazi attacks. Among other things, they held the “No Surrender” tournament among antifa fighters and released a documentary entitled “Hoods,” which tells about the birth of the Kyiv antifa group.
Anti-fascism in Ukraine is an important front, because in addition to a large number of local ultra-right activists, many notorious Nazis have relocated here from Russia, from Europe, and even from the USA (Robert Rando). Anarchists have been investigating the activities of the far right.
There are activist groups of various kinds (classical anarchists, queer anarchists, anarcho-feminists, Food Not Bombs, eco-initiatives, and the like), as well as small information platforms. Recently, a politically charged anti-fascist resource has appeared in the Telegram channel @uantifa, duplicating its publications in English.
Today, the tensions between groups are gradually smoothing out, as recently there have been many joint actions and common participation in social conflicts. Among the biggest of these is the campaign against the deportation of the Belarusian anarchist Aleksey Bolenkov (who managed to win a trial against the Ukrainian special services and remain in Ukraine) and the defense of one of the districts in Kyiv (Podil) from police raids and attacks by the ultra-right.
We still have very little influence on society at large. This is largely because the very idea of a need for organization and anarchist structures was ignored or denied for a long time. (In his memoirs, Nestor Makhno also complained about this shortcoming after the defeat of the anarchists). Anarchist groups were very quickly dashed by the SBU [Security Service of Ukraine] or the far right.
Now we have come out of stagnation and are developing, and therefore we are anticipating new repression and new attempts by the SBU to take control of the movement.
At this stage, our role can be described as the most radical approaches and views in the democratic camp. If liberals prefer to complain to the police in the event of an attack by the police or the far right, anarchists offer to cooperate with other groups that suffer from a similar problem and come to the defense of institutions or events if there is a possibility of an attack.
Anarchists are now trying to create horizontal grassroots ties in society, based on common interests, so that communities can address their own needs, including self-defense. This differs significantly from ordinary Ukrainian political practice, in which it is often proposed to unite around organizations, representatives, or the police. Organizations and representatives are often bribed and the people who have gathered around them remain deceived. The police may, for example, defend LGBT events but get mad if these activists join a riot against police brutality. Actually, this is why we see potential in our ideas—but if a war breaks out, the main thing will again be the ability to participate in armed conflict.
AGAINST ANNEXATIONS AND IMPERIAL AGGRESSION: A STATEMENT FROM RUSSIAN ANARCHISTS
Finally, we’ll close this episode with a short statement from Russian anarchists issued just as the invasion was about to begin. It appeared in Russian on avtonom.org, a media project that grew out of the libertarian communist network Autonomous Action, and was published in English translation by CrimethInc. on February 22nd.
Yesterday, on February 21, an extraordinary meeting of the Russian Security Council was held. As part of this theatrical act, Putin forced his closest servants to publicly “ask” him to recognize the independence of the so-called “people’s republics” of the Luhansk People’s Republic [LPR] and Donetsk People’s Republic [DPR] in eastern Ukraine.
It is quite obvious that this is a step towards the further annexation of these territories by Russia—no matter how it is formalized (or not formalized) legally. In fact, the Kremlin has ceased to consider the LPR and DPR part of Ukraine and is finally making them its protectorate. “First the recognition of independence, then annexation”: this sequence was already worked out in 2014 in Crimea. This is also clear from the stupid reservations expressed by Naryshkin, director of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, at the meeting of the Security Council (“Yes, I support the entry of these territories into the Russian Federation “). Since the meeting, as it turned out, was broadcast on tape [rather than live], and these “reservations” were not cut out, but left in—the hint is clear.
In an “appeal to the people” that same evening, Putin seemed to “agree” with these requests and announced the recognition of the LPR and DPR as independent states. In fact, he said the following: “We are taking a piece of the Donbass, and if Ukraine rocks the boat, then let it blame itself, we don’t consider it a state at all, so we’ll take even more.” According to Putin’s decree, Russian troops are already entering the territory of the LPR and DPR. This is a clear gesture of threat towards the rest of Ukraine and especially towards the parts of the Lugansk and Donetsk regions still controlled by Ukraine. This is the actual occupation [in the sense that until now, Luhansk and Donetsk were only occupied by proxy].
We do not want to stand up for any states. We are anarchists and we are against any borders between nations. But we are against this annexation, because it only establishes new borders, and the decision on this is made solely by the authoritarian leader—Vladimir Putin. This is an act of imperialist aggression by Russia. We have no illusions about the Ukrainian state, but it is clear to us that it is not the main aggressor in this story—this is not a confrontation between two equal evils. First of all, this is an attempt by the Russian authoritarian government to solve its internal problems through a “small victorious war and the accumulation of lands” (a reference to Tsar Ivan III).
It is quite probable that the Kremlin regime will stage some kind of spectacle of a “referendum” on the annexed lands. Such performances already took place in the DPR and LPR in 2014, but not even Moscow recognized their results. Now, apparently, Putin has decided to change that. Of course, there can be no talk of any “free and secret voting” in these territories—they are under the control of militarized gangs completely dependent on Moscow. Those who were opposed to these gangs and against integration with Russia were either killed or forced to emigrate. Thus, any “referendum on the return of Donbass like a lost ship to its native harbor” will be a propaganda lie. The residents of Donbass will be able to formulate their decision only when the troops of all states—and first of all the Russian Federation—leave these territories.
The recognition and annexation of the DPR and LPR will not bring anything good to the inhabitants of Russia itself.
First, in any case, this will lead to the militarization of all spheres of life, even greater international isolation of Russia, sanctions and a decline in general well-being. Restoring the destroyed infrastructure and taking the “people’s republics” into the state budget will not be free, either—both will cost billions of rubles that could otherwise be spent on education and medicine. Have no doubt: the yachts of the Russian oligarchs will not become smaller, but everyone else’s lives will begin to get worse.
Second, the likely aggravation of the armed confrontation with Ukraine will mean more dead and wounded soldiers and civilians, more destroyed cities and villages, more blood. Even if this conflict does not escalate into a world war, Putin’s imperial fantasies are not worth a single life.
Third, this will mean the further spread of the so-called “Russian world”: a crazy combination of neoliberal oligarchy, rigid centralized power, and patriarchal imperial propaganda. This consequence is not as obvious as the rise in the price of sausages and the sanctions on smartphones—but in the long run, it is even more dangerous.
We urge you to counter the Kremlin’s aggression by any means you see fit. Against the seizure of territories under any pretext, against sending the Russian army to the Donbass, against militarization. And ultimately, against the war. Take to the streets, spread the word, talk to the people around you—you know what to do. Do not be silent. Take action. Even a small screw can jam the gears of a death machine.
Against all borders, against all empires, against all wars!
That does it for this episode of the Ex-Worker. We hope this gives you a solid background on the circumstances that led to this war between Russia and Ukraine, and the perspectives of anarchists on both sides of the border. Don’t forget to check out our website at crimethinc.com/podcasts for links to learn more information on all the things we’ve discussed.
We’ll be back in just a couple of days with another episode that explores what’s happened since the invasion began and how things look right now, including live interviews, reports from the front lines, and updates on anti-war activities around the region. Stay tuned! Till then, we’re sending our love and solidarity to our comrades facing the invasion and all people resisting war and empire across the world. Stay strong, keep loving, and keep fighting.