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Ukraine, Nationalism, and Self-Determination
January 24, 2022
by William P. Meyers

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And mistaking propaganda for history

The current crisis in Ukraine forces thoughtful people to return to a basic question: what is fact and what is propaganda? I have seen and heard little news coverage that would provide Americans with an objective view of the situation. The typical American lack of knowledge of European history also makes it easy for Joe Biden, in his role as head of the U.S. establishment, to pretend that the Russian state is wrong and evil in every way. I would guess that Russians are similarly mislead by their own government, as are the Ukrainians.

Despite my political science degree, deep skepticism of propaganda, and ridiculous amounts of time spent reading history books, in my research these last few days I have discovered things that should have been obvious, but I missed them until now. So let us step back to the beginning of World War II and look at a few bits of it with fresh eyes.

Everybody knows that the good guys (Americans) did not enter World War II until the dastardly Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. And most of us know the war started well before that, in September 1939, when Hitler invaded Poland. Most of us do not know that Hitler was (mainly) retaking parts of Poland that had been part of Germany before World War I. In fact, you can't find Poland on a map from the beginning of that century, because it did not exist as a nation. So take a step back, and you might conclude that England and France started World War II, when they declared war on Germany.

The weird thing I realized, researching Ukraine, is that the pretext for declaring war on Germany should have meant England and France would have declared war on the USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics), which took the part of Poland not occupied by Hitler. And stranger still, when the war ended, and Poland was reconstructed, the USSR kept basically the same lands they had taken from the inter-war Poland. Of course there were many reasons to want to keep the USSR as an ally against Germany. In the global imperialism game, the French Empire and the British Empire were rivals, but they both felt threatened by a revived, industrialized Germany in Europe. Keep in mind too that Franklin Delano Roosevelt and sections of the U.S. ruling class had long been keen on conquering the world. They already possessed Hawaii, Philippines, and Puerto Rico and had a grip on all of the Americas. They were held back by Isolationists. And it worked out well. My father, a Marine who fought the Japanese, seldom spoke to me, but once he summed up the divide and conquer technique as: "Let's you and him fight." Perhaps it was some bit of street wisdom, but it could well have been Roosevelt's motto. It certainly worked out well in World War II and its aftermath. Four great empires fought: Germany, France, Britain, and Russia. Two smaller empires joined in towards the end. One was US, the only real victor. We muscled in on the Japanese, German, French and British empires during and after the war, and also had the only intact industrial economy. Everyone else had much of their industry bombed to dust. Russian had lost twenty million soldiers; we lost about one-quarter million.

Nor has the U.S. empire been less cruel to people than those of Britain, France or Russia. Ask the people of Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan about that, if you care to. Unlike the other three empires, we prefer to govern by proxy, rather than directly annexing territory. But we are happy to mass murder civilians if that is necessary to retain control.

During World War II pretty much all of what is now the national territory of Ukraine [then part of the USSR] was occupied by German troops. Russia was occupied up to a line that ran from Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg) to Moscow, Stalingrad, and points south. Meanwhile Churchill and Roosevelt sat on their hands, enjoying the near destruction of Communism, until Stalin and friends got it together to start pushing the Nazis back. Only when it became apparent that the Nazis were going to loose the war anyway did the U.S. and Britain invade Normandy and grab as much of Western Europe as they could. And, of course, Ukraine became part of the USSR again. Having experienced rule by Hitler, most Ukrainians felt that maybe Stalin was not such a bad guy.

Nation-state borders are more often drawn by war than by ethnic groups. Consider the problem of applying Woodrow Wilson's "principal" of national self-determination to Ukraine today. Let's start with a map, before looking at the history and practice of self-determination.

Ukraine ethnic distribution

First, note the map is a simplification. Many other ethnic groups exist in Ukraine besides Ukrainians and Russians. And Russian speakers may have originally belonged to smaller ethnic groups, like Cossacks, that ended up speaking Russian.

Wilson's principal of self-determination, which some now consider international law, clearly says that most of the eastern region of the Ukraine belongs in Russia. President Wilson was a complex man. He was the leading intellectual architect of Jim Crow segregation. When most Americans wanted to stay out of the European War, he declared war on Germany in order to make sure the loans U.S. banks made to the British and French empires would be repaid. And after breaking his promise that if Germany joined an armistice, it would not be punished, he allowed for the dismemberment of the nation. Amid all that he solved a problem for the Democratic Party. Large numbers of Poles had immigrated to the U.S. By offering to re-create the nation of Poland, he won their loyalty and votes. To cover this crass maneuver he said national borders should honor ethnic groups; that is national-self determination. When in doubt, an election could be held to determine which nation a smaller region would be incorporated into. In reality the new Poland included huge areas with non-polish, including German, Russian, and Ukrainian, majorities and substantial minorities.

People from all around the world sought out Wilson at the post-war peace negotiations, pleading to be able to form their own nations. Ho Chi Minh went to ask for independence from the French Empire for Vietnam. He was turned away. Philippines asked to be relieved of the U.S. yoke; no way. National self-determination did not apply to colored people, or anyone in the victorious empires. So it was not a principal. It was an excuse.

Real politics says Russia is a U.S. rival, so anything that benefits Russia is not on the table for the U.S. and its allies. But the more fundamental problem for whoever is U.S. President is that the U.S. is now in roughly the same position as the British Empire going into World War II. We rule the world only so long as the various peoples of the world allow us to. We have behaved badly towards the weak for long enough that the only time they want our help is when they think another overlord would be even worse. The choice between Hitler and Stalin is now the choice between Biden and Putin. Given that, you could argue that the world has improved, that both Biden and Putin are considerably gentler overlords than Hitler and Stalin. But they are still overlords. None of the weaker nations wants to become another Afghanistan or Iraq. Ukraine wants to keep the Russian language areas while asserting that a slight variation in the Slavic mother tongue entitles them to nation-state status.

Ukraine should cede Donbas and Crimea to Russia. Biden and the Democratic Party should push back against the U.S. imperialist military establishment and fix the many problems we have in this nation instead of bullying other nations. The Poles should replace their right-wing thug government with one based on humane values. The Brits and French should shut the f up and do penance for another 200 years for all the wrongs they have done to other nations over the last couple of centuries.

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