George Melnyk is a founder and former director of the Consortium for Peace Studies at the University of Calgary, and he is also a close observer of the events unfolding in Ukraine. In this guest piece, Melnyk says the Canadian left is wrong in supporting Russia’s contrived rebellion in Ukraine.
The situation in Ukraine has been overshadowed by the horrors of Gaza with its more than 2000 dead and thousands injured, as well as hundreds of thousands of traumatized children. With Stephen Harper’s undiminished support for Israel, it is no wonder that progressive Canadians who identify with the Palestinian desire for freedom and independence have been confused on Ukraine.
Harper is equally vociferous in his support for the Ukrainian government, and his anti-Russian rhetoric against Vladimir Putin seems very much like his glorify and demonize approach on Israel and Palestine. However, to separate Harper’s position on Palestine from his position on Ukraine, we must view each situation on its own merits.
In an op-ed in The Globe and Mail on July 26, the Prime Minister described the situation in Ukraine as “a threat to Europe, to the rule of law and to the values that bind Western nations.” He pointed the finger at “Russia’s aggressive militarism and expansionism.” It is this characterization that bothers the Canadian left, especially when it comes from someone whose over-all foreign policy they abhor.
The left tends to accept the argument that Russia has an inherent right to either control or guide Ukrainian affairs in its self-interest, either because Russia has a “right” to a buffer between Europe and itself, or because Russia has dominated Ukraine for several centuries prior to the country’s independence in 1991. Secondly, the left agrees with the Russian annexation of a significant part of Ukraine (Crimea) earlier this year. Again, the rationale is that Russia has a right to the place, no matter how contrived and undemocratic the process. The Canadian left seems to have fallen for Russian propaganda that Ukraine is under the control of “fascists” because these categories were accepted currency in the good old days of capitalist and communist camps. However, viewing Putin as some kind of social progressive and the Ukrainian government as reactionary is a complete misreading of socio-political ideologies and realities.
The principled position
The Canadian left should view this matter from a principled position. As long as Putin felt that he could control Ukrainian affairs it was business as usual. But when the “Euromaidan” revolution brought about the overthrow of its pro-Russian president, Putin moved into high gear discrediting the revolution, creating a fake uprising in Crimea, and launching a separatist insurgency in the east of the country. The Ukrainian people responded by voting for a new president in a democratic manner. Those in the areas still controlled by “separatists” had no such freedom or right. If the Canadian left, which has a long history of supporting popular uprisings against dictators and empires, could find its way to see that the February revolution was a democratic revolution against corruption and foreign manipulation, it would support it.
The distrust of Ukrainian nationalism, which goes back to the Soviet era, was very much tied to the Canadian left’s support for communist Russia and its opposition to American imperialism. In the Cold War era only the Soviet Union had the political might to balance that of the U.S. But this legacy of opposition to imperialism, of which the left can be proud, has to be even-handed and applied fairly in the post-communist era. Opposition to American imperialism should not ignore Russian imperialism, or Israeli imperialism, or any attack, overt or covert, on small nations.
Support the Ukrainian revolution
The Ukrainian revolution is one that deserves the support of the Canadian left because of its emphasis on democracy and pluralism. Ukraine’s wanting to embrace Europe and the West is something to be applauded, not reviled. As someone who has been active in the contemporary peace movement, I have applied my peace principles to the conflict in Ukraine. As an opponent of war, I decry the killing that has gone on in that country because of a contrived “rebellion” instigated, directed, and supplied by a foreign power. Since April there have been over 1100 civilian deaths and a quarter-million displaced people, as well as military casualties.
As an anti-war activist, I accept the right of small and weak nations to defend themselves as best they can. In supporting Ukraine’s independence and sovereignty, I am supporting a democratic revolution against imperialism and a dictatorial Russian regime, in the same way that I have supported and continue to support Canadian independence, democracy and sovereignty against foreign intrigues and domination.