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Revolt in eastern Ukraine resists attacks by NATO and the rightist government in Kyiv

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The following is an abridged version of a lengthy article, 4,700 words, published in Truthout, May 14, 2014.

A political crisis over the future of Ukraine has exploded in the past three months. Its catalyst has been the longstanding efforts of the big imperialist countries to assert economic and military domination over the republics of the former Soviet Union and to weaken and marginalize rival Russia. In today’s Ukraine, this takes the form of collaboration with a compliant local elite to impose capitalist austerity and bring the country under the military umbrella of the NATO military alliance.

But the project has always faced profound resistance from the Ukrainian people and this has become especially sharp in the east of the country, prompted by the fall of an unpopular government in Kyiv at the end of February. A working class and popular revolution in the east is deepening and it is sparking the biggest political and military showdown in Europe since Yugoslavia during the 1990s.

For all intents and purposes, the governing regime in Kyiv is surrendering the sovereignty of Ukraine. It has signed agreements for financial assistance from the IMF and other international financial institutions that impose cuts to public services and the salaries of public employees and that raise the prices of essential goods. It is increasingly captive to the far-right and fascist forces that rose to ascendance during the Maidan protest movement in late 2013, early 2014.

Military campaign in the east

The regime has sent its army into the east of country to suppress rebellion. The focus has been the city of Slavyansk and surrounding area. More than 20 resistance fighters have been killed there and scores more have been injured. But the city remains in the hands of defense forces, as do the smaller centers of Kramatorsk and Konstantinovka, to the south, also under heavy attack.

Police in the east have been sympathetic to the popular movement, and ordinary soldiers in the Ukraine army have refused to turn their guns on their fellow citizens. So the regime has encouraged the formation of militias and "special" police units. Much of the personnel is drawn from members of rightist and fascist groups and gangs in the west of the country. A leading candidate in presidential election to take place on May 25, Yulia Tymoshenko, is among those urging the formation of militias unleash the violence that many army soldiers are refusing to do.

Fascists gangs conducted a grisly massacre in the southern port city of Odessa on May 2. A crowd of more than one thousand rightists unleashed firebombs on the city's large trade union building in the city center. Protesters in favour of political autonomy had taken refuge there following earlier street fighting between pro-Ukraine and pro-autonomy crowds>. Participants in an encampment in front of the building that had been protesting the Kyiv regime's austerity policies for weeks also came under attack and withdrew into the building. Firebombs were then thrown and some rightists entered the burning building to conduct a killing spree. Some people inside who jumped from windows were then murdered outside.

Regime forces staged a provocation in the Black Sea port of Mariupol, south of Donetsk, during Victory Day ceremonies on May 9. They entered the city during the ceremonies in an attempt to seize the police headquarters building from local police. At least seven civilians were killed but the army and militias were driven out of the center of the city.

Victory Day is one of most important days of commemoration in Ukraine and Russia, marking the date of the final capitulation of Nazi Germany to the Soviet Union in 1945, ending World War II in Europe. This year, The Kyiv regime banned ceremonies this year in the areas under its control.

Ukraine Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk made a demonstrative visit to Odessa on May 4, supposedly to mourn the tragedy of two days earlier. But he used the visit to further the regime's propaganda war, blaming the massacre on Russia and "terrorists."

The regime has fired the top command of the police in Odessa and brought a new, 'special' police unit into the city from Kyiv. Similar changes in police command and assignments of ‘special’ police units are taking place in other cities in the country. In Kharkiv in the east, Ukraine’s second largest city, an uneasy truce prevails between the autonomy, anti-austerity movement the regime’s local apparatus.

Few, if any, of the attackers on May 2 have been arrested. Most of them came to Odessa from other regions in the west of Ukraine to attend a football match and provoke confrontation with local, pro-autonomy residents.

The regime has also appointed a new governor of Odessa, Igor Palitsya. He is an associate of the wealthy financier Igor Kolomoisky, who was earlier appointed governor of Dnipropetrovsk region in the east. These appointments by Kyiv of wealthy and corrupt capitalists as governors in eassern regions have further inflamed the situation throughout the east and south.

Donetsk and Luhansk autonomous regions born

Slavyansk is 100 km north of Donetsk-Ukraine's fifth largest city. Donetsk is the political center of the rebellion in eastern Ukraine. A people's republic was declared there on April 7, and popular forces have progressively strengthened their administration of the city.

The neighbouring city and region of Luhansk are exercising a similar "peoples power" autonomy. The two regions lie on the Russian border in the very southeast of Ukraine. Both held plebiscites on May 11 in which those who voted opted overwhelmingly for autonomy from Ukraine. The vote was also an implicit decision for closer association with Russia, but the exact form this will take, including what Russia would agree to, is undecided.

In anticipation of a ‘yes’ vote on autonomy, the leader of the Donetsk Peoples Republic, Denis Pushilin, announced on May 10, "All military troops on our territory after the official announcement of referendum results will be considered illegal and declared occupiers."

Mainstream media commentary is focusing on the democratic shortcomings of the plebiscite and is making no effort to examine the limitations created by the civil war being pursued by Kyiv, including its turn to reliance on fascist militias. Already on April 30, Guardian journalist Luke Harding described the situation in Donetsk and Luhansk by writing, "The reality is that Kyiv's authority has vanished, probably forever."

A 37-year-old housewife, Irina, told Harding's colleague Harriet Salem in Slavyansk (northern Donetsk) on May 6, "It is impossible to turn back to Ukraine after the events in Slavyansk. We will not forgive the killing of our people."

NATO backing of Kyiv regime

The NATO political/military alliance is just fine with the Kyiv regime's turn to violence to resolve the grievances of people in the east. It is backing the regime politically and it is moving troops and military hardware into neighbouring countries in eastern Europe. A planned NATO exercise led by the US  army will be held in Ukraine in July.

The German daily Bild reports that "dozens" of advisors from the FBI and CIA have flooded into Ukraine. Other German dailies are reporting the entry of some 400 U.S. mercenaries with the company formerly known as Blackwater.

President Obama has endorsed the violence of the regime, telling a press conference in Washington on May 2 during an official visit by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, "We're united in our support for Ukraine, including the very important IMF program approved this week to help Ukraine stabilize and reform (sic) its economy . . .

The left wing group Borotba Union has published a detailed look at the composition of the new government that came into power in Ukraine in late February. The fascists of the Right Sector groupings share direction of three ministries - education, anti-corruption and national security. The far-right Svoboda Party controls the ministries of defense, prosecutor general, agriculture and environment.

But visiting Kyiv on May 6, British Foreign Secretary William Hague told the BBC, "The idea that some extremists have taken over here is far, far wide of the mark."

"They [Ukrainians] cannot be bullied out of having their elections [on May 25] by disorder that is deliberately fomented and coordinated from another country - in this case from Russia."

NATO countries have spent billions of dollars on "democracy promotion" intervention in Ukraine in the past several decades. Mainstream media in the NATO countries is playing a key support role, largely ignoring the rise of fascism in Ukraine and presenting the whole situation as a result of "Russian aggression" and fanatical, "pro-Russia separatists."

US writer and academic Nicolai Petro has written many insightful articles suggesting ways in which the NATO powers could de-escalate tensions and conflict. His May 8 article titled ‘Six mistakes the West has made (and continues to make) in Ukraine’ dispels the anti-Russian propaganda drive of NATO.

In the west of Ukraine, meanwhile, fascist and rightist gangs are making it impossible for left-wing parties and movements to engage in open political activity. Candidates of the Communist Party and Socialist Party (full list of election candidates here) are unable to freely campaign. Borotba Union, a Marxist group formed in 2011, has been forced to close its public offices in Kyiv and other cities and regions and advises its members to take extraordinary measures to safeguard their security.

In a telephone interview from Ukraine, Dmitry Kolesnik, editor of the left-wing website Liva ("The Left"), said the situation in Kyiv is very dangerous for left and working-class activists. On May Day, anarchists tried to hold a traditional rally but had to change locations several times due to threats of violence by fascists. In the end, the rally could only take place on the outskirts of the city.


Russian socialist and writer Boris Kagarlitsky has penned a series of piercing articles on events in Ukraine that help to anticipate what lies ahead. These are compiled on a special page of the website of Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal. He argues that while a deepgoing, social revolution is underway in eastern Ukraine, it faces many obstacles, both material and political.

Kagarlitsky says the popular revolt does not need a full-blown, anti-capitalist revolution in one swoop to make progress. “It is perfectly possible to put forward an anti-oligarchic social program today, and such a program does not even have to be exclusively left-wing or socialist. It is enough to call for nationalisation of the property of those Ukrainian oligarchs who have openly associated themselves with the Kyiv regime, and to demand that these assets be directed toward the solving of social problems, toward investment in health care, education and the development of infrastructure.”

Deepening class and social struggle in eastern Ukraine and throughout the country over time will limit the effectiveness of political agreements that do not simultaneously address the burning social needs of the population. Ukraine's standard of living is considerably lower than that of Russia and other neighbouring countries.

Dmitry Kolesnik says the military crackdown by the regime will continue, and like Kagarlitsky, believes the rebels cannot afford to rest on past gains. "The rebels need to act on a radical and progressive program - nationalization of key industries, expand social programs and democratic participation by citizens, and so on. It will be difficult to hold onto the regions they control. But the successes they achieve will influence people in Russia and Ukraine and win greater support."

Yet to weigh in on the events in Ukraine are the working class and progressive movements in Europe, North America and the rest of the world. They have a big responsibility to act in solidarity with the social revolution in Ukraine and stay the hands of those who would drown it in blood. It is vital that progressives around the world join with the social justice fighters in Ukraine and Russia who are demanding:

NATO out of Ukraine and eastern Europe!
No to fascism and extreme nationalism!
No to the austerity policies of the big capital and finance!
For international working class solidarity!

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