SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 181 September 2014

Ukraine crisis deepens

Ukraine has seen a further build-up of Russian military and ‘peace-keeping’ forces in its eastern border area and intensified fighting in the Donetsk region. In the first two weeks of August, the number of deaths doubled to more than 2,000. In an article first published on on 9 August, CLARE DOYLE examines the conflict.

The US and European powers have blocked lending to Russia’s state banks, stopped trade in arms with Russia, and frozen contracts for oil-extracting equipment. These measures have been answered with a year-long ban on European and US food imports to Russia and arrangements for alternative suppliers in Latin America and New Zealand are being made. The western ban on flights by a subsidiary of Aeroflot, operating out of Crimea, provoked talk of a ban on European and US airlines crossing Siberia.

The developing trade sanctions reflect the escalation of the conflict in Ukraine itself. The clashes between pro- and anti-government forces have got bloodier, with mounting civilian casualties and millions of Ukrainian citizens affected. NATO is fully backing the Ukrainian government’s offensive and planning its own manoeuvres in neighbouring Poland. The build-up of Russian troops, equipment and fighter planes on its border with Ukraine make a military intervention seem ever more likely, possibly under the guise of a ‘humanitarian’ exercise.

Origins of the crisis

The months-long confrontation in Ukraine stems from a decision last year by former Ukraine president, Victor Yanukovych, not to proceed with an ‘Association Agreement’ with the European Union (EU). Ukraine is the third poorest country in Europe. Its economy has contracted and one third of its 46 million population lives below the poverty line.

Grounds for popular revolt were maturing and the country’s corrupt ruling clique sought a way of protecting their power and privilege. Switching from the promise of a bail-out of €15 billion from Europe, with austerity strings attached, Yanukovych looked to Vladimir Putin in Russia to honour the promise of a similar amount and the continuation of discounted energy and other supplies. He was well aware of Putin’s concern to protect Russian interests in Ukraine and in Russia’s ‘Near Abroad’.

Ukraine has been a theatre of contention and sometimes open war between western and eastern powers for centuries, not least at the time of the two world wars in the last century. It gained independence from Moscow rule when the USSR collapsed in 1991, but its newly capitalist economy ran into major difficulties. A succession of governments vied to protect the interests of different gangs within the corrupt elite that had grabbed the state’s assets for its own enrichment.

The mass demonstrations that filled Independence Square from December 2013 onwards, sparked by Yanukovych’s about-turn on Europe, stemmed from illusions that association with the EU would bring prosperity and democracy. They expressed a deep-felt desire to get rid of the corrupt rule of oligarchs and establish ‘clean’ government. Over a hundred people were killed in Independence Square in the bloody clashes that were seen live on television across the world.

Once Yanukovych was forced to flee from office and from the country, an indication of the obscene wealth he had accumulated was on show for all to see as they wandered through the grounds of his luxury home. His resignation had probably not entered into the calculations of Russia’s president, who saw Russia’s interests in the region immediately threatened.

The gang who came to power after Yanukovych – today with the oligarch Petro Poroshenko as president – has in the government rabid nationalists and anti-communists including three representatives of the ultra-right Svoboda party.

One of the first measures of the incoming government, though quickly withdrawn, was to downgrade the status of all languages other than Ukrainian, including Russian – the language used by a majority of people living in the south and east of the country as well as by a majority in the once Russian region of Crimea. Genuine fears were aroused amongst workers and ordinary citizens in those areas that worse discriminatory measures would be taken against them. Hence the demonstrations and the development of what appeared to be a ‘separatist’ movement, the setting up of the ‘People’s Republics’ in the south and east, and the holding of referendums to approve them.

A deteriorating situation

Articles on the CWI website ( have gone into some detail on the events as they have unfolded – the struggle over Crimea and the growing polarisation between pro- and anti-government forces. The CWI stands for a united workers’ struggle against war, against the Kiev government and the oligarchs. Unfortunately this sort of programme has not been put forward in Ukraine. No-one has clearly championed the right of self-determination, language rights and the protection of all minorities.

The deterioration in the situation in Ukraine must have left most workers and their families confused and frightened. How much active support exists for the fighters of either side is difficult to assess. The majority of the potentially powerful working class of Ukraine have been reduced to bystanders of events as the crisis has become militarised. The open warfare that has developed now involves more and more ‘irregular’ and ‘volunteer’ forces who can turn their violence against anyone they see as getting in their way.

There are reports of some small demonstrations in the predominantly Ukrainian-speaking west of the country against the call-up, by members of the minority Hungarian and Romanian communities. They are against being mobilised into the Ukrainian army as well as fearful of the possible suppression of their own cultural and language rights.

How the conflict will develop, both inside and beyond Ukraine, in the coming days and weeks is difficult to predict. The war of words over who brought down the Malaysian airliner has given way to a trade sanctions war between major capitalist rivals and events in Ukraine itself could see an escalation of the conflict.

The Financial Times of 6 August quotes allegations made by Donald Tusk, the head of Poland’s sharply anti-Putin government, of a build-up in the last few days of Russian troops on the Ukrainian border from 15,000 to 20,000. Other reports talk of up to 40,000. The total can be increased very rapidly. The border with Russia is porous, with anti-Kiev fighters in control at several places and Ukrainian troops ‘straying’ into Russia. (Some of their officers have now been taken into custody and accused of war crimes.)

In a concerted push, over the past few weeks, Ukrainian government forces are said to have recaptured three quarters of the territory held by the ‘separatists’ since the start of their ‘Anti-Terrorist’ military offensive in April. The last anti-Kiev fighters were driven out of the city of Slovyansk in mid-July. Whole swathes of the city were reduced to rubble in the process. Heart-rending accounts of families living in cellars, emerging to search for food and water, are reminiscent of Grozny after the merciless bombardments by Russian troops against ‘separatists’ there in 2003.

Similar scenes are now reported from Lukhansk. Bombs, rocket and artillery fire are hitting hospitals and schools. Human Rights Watch reports major infringements from both sides of accepted norms of behaviour during armed conflict. "Taking the city of some 450,000 people", writes the Wall Street Journal (August 4), "could be a bloody and destructive affair".

Donetsk, the ‘capital’ of the ‘People’s Republic’, is more than twice the size of Lukhansk but Ukraine’s National Security Council said government troops have begun ‘liberating’ it. Heavily armed battalions of Ukrainian government forces nearly surround this one-time ‘Garden City’ of a million inhabitants and centre of the Donbas coalfield. Human Rights Watch has also found evidence that shelling with Grad missiles was already coming from the Ukrainian positions on its outskirts. But a cruel prolonged siege could develop.

Tens of thousands of people have abandoned their homes in Donetsk; tens of thousands more have nowhere to flee to or no means of getting out of the city. Those who remain have a daily struggle for survival. "Supplies of food, water and electricity in Donetsk are already intermittent. The centre of this major industrial city is all but deserted with no people or cars on the streets and most stores and restaurants closed". (The Guardian, 4 August).

Growing casualties

The total number of people ‘affected’ by the fighting in south east Ukraine now stands at around four million. Towards the end of July, the United Nations reported 1,129 people killed in the three months from April – 799 of them civilians. Now 800,000 people are said to have fled to Russia. Similar numbers undoubtedly fall into the category of Internally Displaced Persons.

The fears of the predominantly Russian-speaking people of this region that their rights were being threatened from Kiev and of economic collapse in the south and east are understandable. Their original protests were peaceful and some, according to Kiev sociologist Volodomyr Ischenko, included demands for re-nationalisation of industry and better wages and living conditions. But they have been exploited and used by arch-reactionary and unsavoury right-wing characters who have put themselves at the head of fighting ‘militias’.

It is the absence of democratically controlled fighting forces of workers and socialists, capable of defending the population and conducting a united fight against oligarchs, corrupt politicians and mercenaries on all sides, that has allowed them to rule the roost. Last week one of these reactionary war-lords boasted to the BBC about carrying out summary executions to enforce discipline amongst participants in his volunteer brigade.

Among the 10–15,000 fighting men in these rebel bands, armed mainly with light weapons and a few elderly tanks, there are no doubt still some who genuinely believe they are fighting for the defence of their community. The commander in chief of the Donetsk resistance, Igor Girkin, known as Strelkov or ‘the shooter’, claims he was a Russian agent until last year and that he took part in the Russian takeover of Crimea. Some of these elements are reactionary Orthodox fanatics who want to return Ukraine to the notorious empire of the tsars!

Similarly, volunteer ‘militias’ from the west of Ukraine are led by some arch-reactionary fascist-inspired bandits who venerate Stepan Bandera, leader of the Ukrainian Nazi collaborators. There are battalions funded by oligarchs and units headed by crazed individuals like the MP Oleg Lyashko.

In his time, Yanukovych funded the police well because they were there to protect him but "he didn’t give a dam about the army!", says Andrew Wilson of the European Council on Foreign Relations. Now, possibly because of US aid, the Ukrainian army is better equipped. Nevertheless a Crowdfunding website was used to raise $35,000 to buy a drone to patrol the border with Russia! Defence analysts say Russia, by contrast, has lavished money on its armed forces for some time. Since the 2008 war against Georgia, its defence spending has gone up 85%. Its army is at least ten times stronger than that of Ukraine.

Ukrainian soldiers, now with slightly better pay and equipment, are undoubtedly urged into battle with reactionary nationalist propaganda about pursuing the ‘terrorists’ in the south east of the country. There are reports of ‘communists’ and trade union activists being singled out for special attack. Several have been kidnapped, some murdered. The ‘Communist’ Party of the Ukraine, which enjoyed the support of 13% of voters at the last general election (ranging from 1-2% in some western provinces, to 20-25% in the south and east), has now been banned by Poroshenko’s government.

The conflict in Ukraine has become a tragic and bloody affair with mercenaries and irregular troops on both sides. The question remains as to whether it develops into more than a civil war and whether it ends in the partitioning, break-up or bloody cantonisation of the country.

The sanctions war

‘Stronger’ sanctions were imposed on Russia for the support it undoubtedly gives to the fighters against the Kiev ‘Junta’, as they call it. They were strengthened after the shooting down of the Malaysian airliner on 17 July.

EU governments have been more reluctant than the US to impose sanctions on Russia. Europe has ten times more trade with the country. Due to protests from France in advance of the latest round of sanctions, its sale to Russia of two helicopter carrier ships is exempted.

Increased sanctions and the mounting tension over Ukraine, have seen share prices on European stock exchanges falling, most notably in Germany, "reflecting that country’s close economic ties with Russia". (New York Times 2-3 August). More than a quarter of Germany’s energy supplies come from Russia.

The British government was decidedly slow in supporting the idea of sanctions against Russia. They did not want to see Russian oligarchs pulling their money out of London. David Cameron is also said to be ‘conflicted’ about calls to boycott the World Cup due to be held in Russia in 2018! The expanded list of people and entities subject to asset freezes and travel bans includes friends of Putin from his days in St Petersburg. One is his old judo sparring partner – Arkady Rotenberg. Another – Yuri Kovalchuk – is a member of the innocuous-sounding ‘Ozero Dacha’ cooperative society – a group of billionaires closely bound to the Russian leader.

But the sanctions have not dented the president’s popularity at home – standing now at around 90%. They have provoked him to strengthen his ties with Latin America, Asia (especially China) and with the ‘Eurasian Union’. This association – of Russia with Kazakhstan and Belarus – brings together 170 million people in three countries which have 20% of the world’s gas and 15% of its oil. However, the heads of state in this group are themselves uneasy about recent events in Ukraine. Lukashenko of Belarus has criticised Russia’s grabbing of Crimea and Nazarbayev, president of Kazakhstan which has a large population of ethnic Russians, is said to be wary of Moscow interfering in his country on the pretext of protecting them.

Putin has recently visited Beijing where he signed a $400 billion gas supply contract that had been years in the making. As one journalist commented, he prefers making business deals without being lectured on human rights or geopolitical ethics.

The future

Whether Putin now makes a bid for the outright annexation of ‘New Russia’ (south-east Ukraine) or attempts to get some kind of compromise will become clearer in the coming days. But de facto Russian territories inside other countries already exist, such as Transdniestr (in Moldova) and Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia. But conflicts can still flare up over these situations at any given moment.

The Economist of 2 August pointed to one of the main factors in the Russian president’s calculations. "Mr Putin believes that his own political future depends on the defence of Russia’s regional influence – that is the lesson he draws from the Soviet Union’s collapse. His nightmare would be to see the rebels defeated without Russia getting anything in return. He would rather be a global pariah than a Mikhail Gorbachev".

It is possible that Kiev continues to drive ruthlessly for the military re-taking of areas held by the ‘rebels’. If they succeeded, this would be a bloody Pyrrhic victory, resolving nothing. There is still the possibility at this late stage of a peace deal being brokered which does not involve the break-up of Ukraine and some kind of ‘arrangement’ for the south and east.

Whatever happens, the working people of Ukraine will face a crisis- and debt-ridden economy. It will have been further debilitated by the enormous human and economic burden of the war that has been taking place.

If Ukraine is dismembered, with whole regions being taken under Russia’s wing, the flagging Russian economy will not be able to offer the guaranteed wages and social provisions of the ‘Soviet’ past, as imagined by some of the Russian-speaking workers of the east, especially the older generation.

The pro-European Kiev regime of the oligarch-president, Poroshenko, is backed by the US for its own economic and military interests. The right-wing government still contains some extremely reactionary ‘politicians’, including from the far right and neo-fascistic parties. The president continues to operate on the basis of crony capitalism and does not have the interests of working people at heart.

On 7 August, government forces moved in to clear the ‘tent city’ that remained in ‘Maidan’, the Kiev square where the anti-Yanukovych protests began. A day or two before, Yehor Sobelev, who heads the ‘Lustration Committee’ that is trying to hold public officials to account, said, "I see little evidence that he [Poroshenko] wants to change the corrupt system… I think there will be a new Maidan".

As before, and as elsewhere, a mass movement can bring down a government but unless the working class puts its stamp on events and carries the struggle through to a conclusion – the elimination of private ownership of major industries and the establishment of a democratically controlled plan – it will fail to deliver the results longed for by the people who began to make a revolution.

This vacuum allowed reactionary elements to seize the initiative. The voice of the left and workers’ organisations in Ukraine has been extremely weak. The need for a united struggle for a workers’ and socialist government has not been widely heard.

Calls need to be made for workers’ unity against the war and against the oligarchs on both sides of the conflict, defence of the right to self-determination for those who want it, with full guarantees for language rights and protection of the rights of all minorities in society. Democratically-run committees or ‘militias’ to defend workplaces and neighbourhoods are also vital.

Those workers and young people who want to try again to rid society of oligarchs and corruption and of class and national oppression will be key to the development of a viable workers’ alternative. Democratically elected bodies would discuss and debate all social and economic matters and also what level of self-rule would be acceptable.

A struggle to establish workers’ states in the whole of the region would encompass the idea of encouraging a voluntary linking up and cooperation amongst separate countries and states in a socialist federation, in the region and internationally.

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