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​Ukraine government risks a whirlwind in efforts to halt protests in east of country

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Moves by the Ukraine government to crack down on protests against its rule in the east of the country appear to have quickly faltered and backfired. Protest actions are widening.

For several weeks, protests in eastern Ukraine have included occupations of government buildings and at least one regional declaration of pro-Russia secession. Late last week, the government in Kyiv called the occupations acts of "terrorism" and said it would take steps to forcibly end them. It gave occupiers until yesterday to end their actions, saying it would unleash police and special military units.

But the deadline has come and gone, and the number of cities where protests and occupations are erupting is growing. These include takeovers of police stations and local policing duties.

Several news articles today are describing the government’s dilemma. Writing from Kyiv, the Globe and Mail's Mark MacKinnon explains:

[Interim Ukrainian President Oleksandr] Turchynov's deadline came and went Monday without any sign of a concerted move to oust the militants, who now control the cities of Donetsk and Lugansk, as well as much of the densely populated coal-producing industrial region known as the Donbass.

On the contrary, MacKinnon reported, armed men seized a police station in the city of Horlivka, raising the Russian flag. He reports there are ten cities in eastern Ukraine where one or more government buildings are under the control of forces advocating a decentralized national government.

The government is wracked by internal division. On Monday, Interim President Turchynov demoted the head of the "anti-terrorist centre" of the Security Service of Ukraine. He appointed a deputy to take his place. He then contradicted last week’s hard line by appealing to the protesters who had proclaimed a "people's republic" eight days ago in the industrial city of Donetsk. He suggested the government could hold a nationwide referendum on the future of Ukraine alongside the presidential elections scheduled for May 25.

But the protesters aren’t listening. They want some form of federal (less centralized) government in Ukraine and and they want to keep close economic ties to Russia.

Turchynov has also proposed a "peacekeeping" force for eastern Ukraine sponsored by the UN Security Council. But Russia holds a Security Council veto over such a decision and rejects such a proposal.

MacKinnon concludes, "Kremlin-connected analysts have told the Globe and Mail that [Russian President Vladimir] Putin will consider all options -- up to and including the further use of force -- to make sure that Ukraine never joins the EU or the NATO alliance. They say economic sanctions are very unlikely to convince Mr. Putin to change course."

An article by the Associated Press describes the takeover of the police station in Horlivka in eastern Ukraine. It also describes a similar takeover in the town of Slovyansk, as does an article in The Guardian.

AP says that some police in eastern Ukraine are joining the protest movement or simply stepping aside. The AP article is titled, "Ukraine struggles as east slips out of its control."

According to The Guardian, Ukrainian special forces that moved into the city of Kramatorsk to suppress the protest movement were surrounded by angry locals asking why the troops were there and why they had fired weapons, injuring at least one man. General Vasily Krutov replied, "We are conducting an anti-terrorist operation". He was interrupted by angry shouts of "What terrorists?" and received a blow to his head. He had to be hustled away to the local military airbase for his own protection.

A man who identified himself as Valery told The Guardian outside the barricaded airfield, "We're not separatists. I don’t want Ukraine to be divided. I don't want to give our land to Russia...I want a referendum because we can't work with this regime any other way."

The protest movement in east Ukraine follows the vote last month in the region of Crimea in south Ukraine to secede and join the Russian Federation. Both sets of events are prompted by the coming to power of a rightist government in Kyiv in late February with key backing from the United States and Europe. It was the latest step in a several decades-long effort of the large imperialist countries to isolate and weaken the Russian Federation that emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.

Russia's leaders have taken the refounded country along a capitalist path. They have also resisted the efforts of the U.S. and Europe to penetrate and dominate the economies of eastern Europe and the republics of the former Soviet Union. Naturally, they have opposed the encroachment and military encirclement by the NATO military alliance, which is a direct violation of NATO's promise that it would not take advantage of the post-Soviet chaos to threaten and weaken Russia’s military defences.

Protesters in eastern Ukraine are motivated by a strong mix of political sentiments and aspirations. Historical and cultural ties to Russia remain strong in a region that saw the most catastrophic military offensive in human history -- the invasion by Germany of the Soviet Union in 1941. A majority of residents of the region claim Russian as their first language.

An important factor in the current protests is resistance to austerity. Protests arose throughout Ukraine last year against austerity and government corruption. These came to a head in Kyiv early this year. Rightist and fascist forces intervened successfully to divert the aims of the movement and help bring a rightist government to power. The U.S. and Europe backed that course.

Rightist forces also exist in Russia. They and the pro-capitalist government in Moscow are deeply invested in the fight over eastern Ukraine.

Ukraine is a nation historically oppressed by the pre-1917 Russian empire of the Czars (monarchs) and then by the Stalin-led regime that overthrew the program of the Russian Revolution during the course of the 1920s and 1930s. Ukraine gained independence in 1991, but its economy is deeply dependent on Russia, including for essential supplies of natural gas. It is also dependent on the world capitalist market by virtue of its significant exports of agricultural products.

The early years of the Russian Revolution saw decisive policies enacted in favour of national liberation -- from creative forms of autonomy for some nationalities to outright independence for others. A 2006 article by John Riddell details this history, The Russian Revolution and national freedom, as does a book on which that article draws heavily, The Bolsheviks and the national question, 1917-1923, by Jeremy Smith, 1999 (comprehensive book review here).

The government that came into power in Kyiv at the end of February this year is unashamedly determined to take the country into the economic embrace of the U.S. and European Union, including the harsh policies of austerity that the big powers and international financial institutions say are a condition of closer ties. Today, it is facing a whirlwind from its threats against the population in the east of the country and risks losing control of the region entirely.

One man conveyed to the U.K. Independent in Horlivka yesterday the mixed feelings no doubt prevailing among many Ukrainians over events. He told the newspaper's Kim Sengupta, "I have a lot of connections with Russia, I like Russia, I lived in Moscow; but what is happening now is astonishing, unbelievable. We think Putin will invade stealthily; the Kiev lot are incompetent, but they will have to fight and then there will be a lot of people killed. I worry about my country, my city."

In the city of Yenakiyevo, activist Ruslan Tupiken told The Guardian's Luke Harding that said any attempt by Ukrainian authorities to recapture the city would end in disaster. “I don’t want the Russian military to come here. But if the Ukrainian army starts killing people then people here will welcome Russian forces.”

He added: “We are spiritually closer to Russia. We share the same faith. Plus everyone is mixed up. You have a mother living here in Ukraine, with her daughter just across the border in Russia. How can they fight?”

Postscript:
April 16, 2014--Here is a brief, informative interview appearing today on the Real News Network with Nicolai N. Petro, professor of politics at the University of Rhode Island. During the collapse of the Soviet Union, Petro served as special assistant for policy in the U.S. State Department.

Petro argues that the goal of much of the protest movement in eastern Ukraine is not secession or affiliation to the Russian Federation, but a decentralized, federal Ukraine. He says in another, more lengthy interview on April 14, for example, that the appearance of the Russian flags at protests in eastern Ukraine does not symbolize advocacy of secession but rather of cultural and historical affirmation. The colors of the Russian flag--white, blue and red--are used in nearly all the flags of Slavic countries in Eastern and Central Europe.

Petro's analysis squares with many media reports from eastern Ukraine. Accordingly, I have made several adjustments to this article, replacing terminology referring to a 'pro-Russia' protest movement and instead describe a movement favoring a decentralized and federal government in Ukraine.

Petro has published widely on Russian and international politics, and is currently in Ukraine on a Fulbright research fellowship. He publishes a very informative website at www.npetro.net.

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