Conference from Kiev, Ukraine with Oleg Vernyk

On March 9, the International Socialist League organized an international conference with Oleg Vernyk, leader of the Ukrainian Socialist League, our section in that country, which is resisting the Russian invasion in the capital of Kiev. Here is the transcript.

Opening remarks by Alejandro Bodart: Oleg Vernyk is president of the Independent Trade Union “Zakhist Pratsi” (Labor Protection) and leader of the Ukrainian Socialist League, section of the ISL in Ukraine. It is a pleasure for us to be able to speak with him. He is in Kiev, in a very difficult situation. We hope we are lucky enough to hold the connection for a few hours that we have planned to have first hand information about what is happening in Ukraine. There are many commentators, but we don’t often hear the voice of the workers, let alone socialist workers like Oleg. Welcome Oleg!

Oleg Vernyk: Many thanks to the comrades of the International Socialist League for the opportunity to take part in this meeting. It is a huge expression of solidarity and what the organization is doing in relation to the situation we are experiencing here in Ukraine is very much appreciated.

Right now I am in Kiev. Today is the 14th day of the war, two weeks have already passed. Kiev is surrounded on three sides. Only to the south there is still a humanitarian corridor for civilians to evacuate, but the other directions are occupied by Russian troops.

Unfortunately, the humanitarian corridors are not working well. In the last few days people are trying to leave Mariupol and Sumy, those two cities suffered shelling. Russia does not fulfill the agreements it committed to in the talks.

I would like to share some considerations, impressions of how the Ukrainian people are reacting to the situation.

First of all, I would like to emphasize that there is no panic among the population, they are not in panic and they are more or less calm. They have united in the face of Russian aggression and this unity is massive. I would also like to emphasize the high level of self-organization of the population, of the people. I would like to demonstrate it with an example about the shelter where I am located. The questions of the shelter’s operation were solved in regular meetings among all of us. We were able to arrange for food, water and toilet paper to be provided. The men were in charge of organizing who is going to guard the shelter from the outside. I did not expect this high level of organization now shown by the Ukrainian people. It is also worth mentioning that the territorial defense plays a great role. There are civilian units who organized themselves in the big cities.

In Kiev the army gave 18,000 weapons to territorial defense, the people are ready to defend their city. So far the Russian troops have not been able to take any big city. Also because they know that they are going to have a lot of losses, not only because of the resistance of the Ukrainian army, the Ukrainian troops, but also because of the resistance of the people themselves.

As for the militants of my trade union, almost all the male members of the trade union got weapons and participate in the territorial defense, in the territorial defense units. Right now, the most serious situations are being experienced by the comrades of the trade union in a town called Selidove in the Donetsk areas. It is a trade union of miners of an organization called “Selidove-ugol” and they are participating in the battles, in the fighting. I am very concerned about them. Although we have many disagreements among the trade unions in Ukraine, we are united in the face of Russian aggression.

A few days ago something serious happened, the trade union organization of Russia expressed its public support to the Russian intervention in Ukraine and that is why the Ukrainian trade unions asked the International Confederation of Trade Unions to exclude the Russian trade union from its membership.

Now I wanted to say a few words to you about the myths used by the Russian propaganda to justify the aggression.

Before the intervention, Putin mentioned that Ukraine was created as a sovereign state by Lenin and the Bolsheviks and, therefore, it would now make sense to “decommunize.” In other words, to make Ukraine no longer exist as an independent state. Within this interpretation of Putin we understand that defending Ukraine, right now, means defending Lenin’s Bolshevik positions.

Another huge myth that Putin’s propaganda uses to justify the war is that he is carrying out a “denazification” of Ukraine. I would like to remind comrades that the President of Ukraine Volodymir Zelensky is Jewish. Moreover, all far-right parties in Ukraine since 2015 have only received 2% of the votes. It is obvious that the term “denazification” does not make any sense in the context of Ukraine, according to common sense.

Ukraine is a weak normal capitalist state with a bourgeois democracy that we as the left do not support. But it is not a far-right, fascist, ultra-nationalist state as Putin claims. According to the lies of Russian propaganda anyone who defends Ukraine is a fascist, or a nationalist. It is a chauvinist logic.

Another myth used by the Russian propaganda is that the intervention is aimed at defending the Russian-speaking population of Ukraine. I want to emphasize one very important thing, the war has already been in our territory for 14 days and it has taken place, exclusively, in the Russian-speaking territories. Russia is shelling the neighborhoods, it is shelling civilians and they are Russian-speaking civilians. In the occupied cities in the southeast of the country, people are taking to the streets and demonstrating against the Russian invasion. Again I want to emphasize that, above all, it is a Russian-speaking population that does not want Russian troops there and is openly telling them that they are not welcome. Right now, for us it is clear that Putin before the intervention based his position on a false analysis of what the Russian-speaking population of our country thinks and what they want. I can understand the analysts, they are the Russians who made the reports with the words that Putin wanted to hear and read. But they are false facts. They are not true.

Putin wanted to carry out a three day “blitzkrieg”, but it did not work out. The more days they remain in Ukraine, the more hatred and rejection they generate in the population. Prolonging the war is not conducive to people supporting them or understanding their logic of liberating Russian speakers from nationalism or fascism in Ukraine.

I believe that our political position as the Ukrainian Socialist League has so far been and is the most correct. We were among the first to declare that Ukraine has become a territory where two imperialisms clash: On the one hand, Russia and on the other hand the West. In this context I am remembering the discussions among the comrades that took place at the International Congress, among the comrades from Ukraine and among the comrades from Lebanon, to whom I send my regards. At that time, we talked about how world imperialism functions, we talked about its structure.

I would like to emphasize that the ISL correctly states that the imperialist forces, the imperialist world, has changed in recent years. The left organizations all over the world are used to confronting Western imperialism which for the last 60, 70 years has dominated the world. And this is correct, the role of NATO is still there, and we do not remove it from our international agenda. On the other hand, the imperialist world has become more complicated in recent years, and new actors have appeared at the global and regional level. Above all, there are young and very aggressive imperialisms like China and Russia. It is very important that the ISL emphasizes in its statements that in Ukraine two imperialisms, Russian and Western, confront each other. I have to say that not all the left is prepared psychologically and theoretically to confront, to fight against, Russian or Chinese imperialism. The tradition of criticizing NATO is still there, but not of criticizing the new imperialisms. I would also like to point out that even the organizations of the left that admit that these two imperialisms are clashing on Ukrainian territory limit their analysis, and the defense of Ukraine is not on their agenda. The idea of conflict between these two imperialisms that we now see on the territory of Ukraine is still there, but the situation changed a lot in the last two weeks. What we need now is this understanding, we need to understand exactly how this conflict and the struggle of the two imperialisms is solved, to look at it in detail. In the Ukrainian and Russian language there is also a proverb, a phrase that means “the devil is in the details.”

Many organizations of the left say that yes, there is a conflict, a struggle of two imperialisms in Ukraine, but we are not disposed to support either one, nor anyone, anywhere. But let’s look at the real situation, the actual situation: who started a war against whom?

Russian imperialism, a very important imperialism with a well-equipped modern army, started a war against a weak, small, capitalist, but not imperialist, state.

Let us look, let us analyze how Western imperialism behaved in this situation. For your understanding, before the war the US had sent only 100 anti-tank weapons to Ukraine, but there was a huge scandal, as if it had sent a lot of weapons. For two weeks President Zelensky has been asking NATO to close the airspace of Ukraine and defend the Ukrainian people. But what does NATO answer? It answers “well, dear friends, this is your problem, your conflict and we do not want to take part in it, we are not part of the war.” Our president says: “okay, all right, if you don’t want to close the airspace please provide us, send us the old planes from the Soviet times which are still at the disposal of countries like Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland and Romania because it would help us a lot to fight Russia.”

The representatives of the NATO countries reply that they cannot provide the planes because then they would automatically participate in the war.

With this example I wanted to show a key idea, that in Ukrainian society there is a huge disappointment with NATO. I think that we, socialists, should take advantage of this situation when the citizens really see that Western imperialism has no difference with Russian imperialism. They are completely disappointed.

I would like to point out that the ISL was among the first organizations that publicly declared “No to the intervention of Russian imperialism.” I think this position of “no to imperialism, no to Russian intervention” separates us, sets us apart from other centrist and reformist groups. I would like to exemplify this idea. It is clear that, if an imperialist country invades another non-imperialist country, its imperialist competitor – we are talking about NATO, the US – is going to support the victim. It is very important that we talk about the need to stop imperialist aggression because otherwise our position will be pro-imperialist. For example, if US imperialism is going to invade Cuba or Venezuela, and Russia, in support, is going to send them five missiles, that is going to demonstrate many things. And then the pseudo-left would say: it is a struggle between US and Russian imperialism, we are against both, and we are not going to support anyone, and this is not normal, it is a pro-imperialist position in any case. Of course, in this case we are justly not going to stop criticizing the governments of Venezuela and Cuba, but at the same time we are going to pronounce ourselves against US aggression.

So the situation of the Russian imperialist aggression against Ukraine is the same situation, it is something very similar. Our Ukrainian Socialist League as members of the ISL does not stop fighting and pronouncing itself against the bourgeois and capitalist state, against Zelensky and his government. But the fact, the situation of the military aggression of Russian imperialism against a weak, dependent, though capitalist, state like Ukraine, makes us say in a very clear way that we are against this aggression and that we can only wish that they lose, that Russia loses.

To conclude, I would like to express that we are very grateful on behalf of the Zahist Pratsi Union and the comrades of Ukraine, for your support from all the countries on behalf of the ISL, for the solidarity that you show us, thank you very much!

Alejandro: Thanks to you Oleg. Honestly, the possibility of having a person who, from the scene of the events, comments on what is happening and, at the same time, explains a revolutionary position very well, is very important for us. I want to clarify that many of the questions we have received are addressed in the articles and documents that we have been publishing, which we have been writing in collaboration with Oleg and the USL. The positions of the ISL have been developed in a permanent exchange with our comrades. Therefore, if any question is not answered – because I have about 30 or 40 questions that have been asked in the chat – well, they can be read later in some of these texts.

1) The first question had to do with the issue of the self-determination of Donbass and what we think about it. We obviously support the possibility of self-determination of Donbass, as well as Crimea. We do not agree with chauvinism, neither Ukrainian nor Russian. But there are problems to be solved. Unfortunately, imperialism did not give an opportunity to realize their right to self-determination to the populations of Crimea and Donbass. Instead, it occupied them, occupied those territories militarily, with a military intervention. The situation was the following: first the Russian military forces intervened and then the second referendum took place, in a context, in a situation of military intervention already present.

My basic education is jurisprudence, I am a lawyer, I know perfectly well, within international law, even if it is bourgeois, that referendums held in occupied territories are not recognized. Let us imagine that in 1941 the German Nazis hold a referendum in the occupied territories, which had been occupied leading to Moscow, this is absurd!

So a preliminary, fundamental condition is that the Russian army leaves this territory and then self-determination can take place. This does not mean that Ukrainian troops should be there. No, it could be an international control, some neutral, international observers and under these conditions a referendum could be held, without any imperialist pressure on the citizens, so that they can freely express how they want to live. As socialists we do not aim to keep the territory, to keep these regions within Ukraine. Let them decide.

2) The second question had to do with the phenomenon of neo-Nazism in Ukraine, its real influence. It must be said that the current political agenda in Ukraine is very right-wing. In the current Parliament there are no left-wing parties or left-wing representatives; there are only right-wing centrists, right-wing liberals, right-wing conservatives. All right-wing.

The parliament of Ukraine, which is called the Verkhovna Rada, consists of 450 representatives. In the last elections only one woman, representing the right-wing party “Savoda”, (Freedom if we translate it into English) entered the parliament, only one woman among the 450 parliament members. However, the votes for the radical right-wing, ultra-right parties did not get more than 2% of all votes. The far-right forces are not an agent of the political process.

The real agents in the political scenario in Ukraine are two groups. On the one hand, the oligarchy of national capital, of the big capitalists. The other group are the pro-Westerners, we could call them the liberal right, who are in conflict with the first group. In this political scenario there is no place for the far right. They are not agents of the political process.

I want to repeat that our president Zelensky is Jewish, former minister Groisman was also Jewish. That means that the citizenry massively votes the representatives of the Jewish community, so what neo-Nazism are we talking about? I am completely convinced that this idea about neo-Nazism in Ukraine is a construct of Russian propaganda, which aims to justify and give an excuse for the aggression they are carrying out.

3) The third question was about self-defense, the participation of Ukrainian citizens. I have to say that the territorial defense units are a unique phenomenon. The truth is that I did not expect it, and it is a very optimistic sign, I think.

There were queues and queues, kilometers long, of young men who wanted to register for these territorial defense units. They could not even accept everyone. They said: “We are sorry, we exceeded four times the limit of the number of people we needed.”

It was organized in this way: weapons were distributed among the young men, and they signed a commitment that after the war, they had to return them. They wrote down their passport number and so on, it was official. In this way a popular militia was formed, a popular resistance.

In principle these people live in their houses, but if necessary they organize themselves in their units. The types of weapons they have are light weapons, but also Javelin anti-tank weapons.

These people are very motivated to defend their cities, to defend their families, they are real heroes and I am very proud of them.

4) The fourth question has to do with President Zelensky, whether he has become more popular. I had already said that Putin was planning a quick war, a “blitzkrieg,” and thought that Zelensky was going to flee and leave Kiev. The Americans were also offering Zelensky a plane to escape, already on the first day of the war. Now there is going to be a bit of a sexist joke, but in Ukraine people say “it turns out Zelensky does have balls.”

Now there is no talk about future presidential elections because Zelensky demonstrated very positive personal characteristics. I also have to say that we, the left, are expecting that, unfortunately, after the war, the citizenry, the population is going to come together behind the figure of Zelensky. And there is going to be a very patriotic agenda; it is going to be difficult for us to make proletarian and class propaganda.

It was only in the autumn of last year that we had the opportunity to update the social agenda in Ukraine, to carry out a strike and a trade union struggle, against the neoliberal agenda of the government. And Putin’s aggression nullified all the successes we had last year. We have quite a difficult situation ahead of us to deal with the patriotic agenda, which is surely going to take place after the war; to try to minimize this agenda and to update the social issues.

5) The Ukrainian army is very small, the Russian army is very large, obviously. And technologically, Ukrainians do not have very modern weaponry; we have the USSR weapons left to us after 1991. But I have to say that, already for 14 days, we are resisting against one of the largest armies in the world; our small army is resisting and continues to resist. Ukrainian soldiers are very, very motivated and they are real heroes.

I consider that Russia not being able to carry out a “blitzkrieg” is already a victory, our victory. And we were able to reach negotiations, to start a process of negotiations. The people are very mobilized, they are very united, and as I said before, even in the cities occupied by the Russian troops, the people are protesting and expressing that they do not want “their liberation, they do not want to be liberated” and they want them to leave.

6) I will continue with the question about the negotiations. We have had three rounds of negotiations so far. In the second round the two sides agreed not to give much information to the media, so that the negotiations can be successful.

The organization of humanitarian corridors for the evacuation of civilians from the occupied cities is currently in question. In the last negotiations they reached an agreement to establish these corridors.

About the political issues that are at stake in the negotiations, it is very difficult to predict what they can agree on. In my own opinion, President Zelensky himself is disappointed with the idea. He is disappointed in NATO and it is likely that they will remove from the constitution the plan to join NATO. Our USL would support this decision, it seems to us very appropriate, very coherent.

I will remind you of the context. As I have said before, NATO is not defending Ukrainian cities. It does not plan to close the airspace. It does not provide the Soviet planes that our Ukrainian pilots know how to fly. So it moves away from the conflict, from the war.

7) Whether NATO will be able to take advantage of this war. This is a complex question, because NATO is no longer such a united organization; within it there are different groups with different interests.

As the first group I would highlight the one formed by the US, the UK and Canada. I believe that for this NATO group the war is beneficial in the geopolitical sense and yes, it is in accordance with their interests.

The second group consists of most of the European countries, especially the old democracies, such as Germany and France. These countries have more of a relationship with Russia from a trade and economic point of view. Above all, Germany if we talk about oil and gas, this country is very dependent on Russian gas and that’s why it loses a lot right now.

The third group is of the young democracies: Romania, Bulgaria, the Baltic countries, the Czech Republic and others. For these countries the war is also something beneficial because they will be able to take advantage of this idea of the Russian threat and ask for more military and economic support from the European Union. So strategically it is a positive thing for them.

The last NATO group is Turkey, it is a very complex and separate issue. President Erdogan conducts a very complex international foreign policy. On the one hand, he tries to be a friend of Russia and buys his anti-aircraft defense system from Russia. On the other hand, he sells Ukraine an armament called Bayraktar. He then positions himself in a mediating role. He also proposed Turkey as a negotiating territory between Ukraine and Russia. So we could say that Turkey could also take advantage of the war, because in the arms market, its Bayraktar weaponry is growing in price because it has been shown to be very effective, so it will surely be in great demand.

8) In conclusion, I want to give a message to Russia and other countries, on behalf of the Ukrainian workers. The USL is completely against any expression of Russophobia, including in the context of the war, we believe that it is not appropriate. We would like to call on the workers of Russia not to be afraid of Putin’s authoritarian regime, to take to the streets, to participate in the anti-war protests.

We have received information that more than 5,000 Russian activists have been detained for participating in the protests. Clearly it is not much compared to the whole population in Russia, but it is still very important that they speak out publicly, and show that they are willing to fight against the regime. That they are speaking out against Russian aggression against Ukraine. We want to thank you very much on behalf of the workers of Ukraine.

We should stand together with the comrades of Russia in this struggle against Putin and his imperialism. I would like to remember that the Russian revolution took place in St. Petersburg, which is clearly Russia, and that its actor Leon Trotsky was born in Ukraine. So we were together in 1917 and we have to be together in 2022, against imperialism and fight Putin, fight against him. And, addressing the workers of other countries, I want to tell them that we must intensify solidarity with the Ukrainian people, who are right now in a very difficult situation under the bombings. Hundreds of civilians and soldiers are dying here. Every rally, every solidarity demonstration is very, very important. We would like to thank you for this and we consider the role of the ISL very important, as it organizes these actions in different countries.

Greetings and gratitude from Alejandro.

Clarification: At the time of publication of this transcript, the shelter where Oleg and his family are staying is being closed due to the imminent arrival of Russian troops and they are moving to another region outside Kiev.