On April 22, the Ukraine government announced a new military offensive against its citizens in the east of the country. The UK Telegraph says 11,000 troops and 160 armoured vehicles are involved.
The offensive is directed at the popular protest movement that has deepened since the coming to power of a rightist government in Kyiv two months ago. Protesters want economic and social improvements to the harsh conditions of life faced by most people in eastern Ukraine. They oppose the austerity policies of the new government that are a condition of its cherished hopes for closer economic ties with the European Union.
The movement increasingly believes that political autonomy and retaining economic ties with Russia are the only way out of the region’s economic morass.
Attacks by Ukrainian armed forces so far have killed at least four people in two clashes.
A pattern has quickly emerged of the government exaggerating the results of its offensive. It claims it has retaken public buildings in some of the ten or so cities taken over by the protest movement in the past month. However, BBC journalists, CBC Radio reporter Derek Stoffel (evening news report April 23) and many other journalists on the ground say they’re seeing nothing resembling that. The Globe and Mail’s Mark MacKinnon, who has been in Ukraine for weeks, wrote from Warsaw on April 23: “Despite the ramped-up rhetoric, there were few signs Wednesday of the renewed Ukrainian military operation in Donbass.”
The government claims that soldiers killed five protesters during an attack on a protest checkpoint on the outskirts of Slavyansk (Sloviansk) on April 24. The mayor of the town told assembled journalists afterward that one died.
The government’s action is a violation of the international agreement reached in Geneva on April 17 that was supposed to lessen tensions in the country. It said there should be no military intervention and called for disarming of irregular militias. But in the Ukraine government’s interpretation, disarming does not apply to the rightist and fascist gangs in the territory under its control.
Indeed, evidence from the assault on a checkpoint at Slavyansk on April 20 that killed three residents points to a rightist militia unit as responsible for the carnage. Several of the attackers’ bullet-ridden cars littered the site of the clash afterward. As reported by the Mark MacKinnon, residents say they captured weapons, a supply of U.S. dollars and aerial maps of the city. A Russian reporter claims to have found a business card in one of the cars, bearing the name of a leader of the Right Sector fascist party, Dmytro Yarosh.
The new Ukraine government includes representatives of far-right parties. While there have been tensions between the government and the far right, rightists are being recruited to police forces and the national guard.
Mitch Potter of the Toronto Star reported from Donetsk that Yulia Tymoshenko, a former prime minister and a leading candidate in the presidential election to take place on May 25, has called for the formation of more militias to bolster the country’s military in confronting the protest movement in eastern Ukraine. During a visit to Donetsk on April 18, she was photographed shaking hands with militia volunteers, masked men identified as the Artyomovsky Battalion.
According to Nicolai Petrov, a professor of politics at the University of Rhode Island and frequent writer and commentator on Ukraine, the new government has severed ties with consultants of previous governments, including foreign academics. It is favouring, instead, advisors with hardened, right wing views. The government quickly reneged on a promise made only days ago to hold a referendum next month that would provide for a decentralized, federal political structure for Ukraine.
Petrov also told his interviewer that the government is recruiting from fascist groups that were prominent in the protests in Kyiv’s Maidan Square for its bolstered “national guard.”
Military escalation by NATO countries
The Ukraine government is receiving strong backing from the U.S., European Union and Canada. Soon after assuming power, it agreed to tough austerity measures as a condition of promised financial assistance from its foreign backers and international financial institutions.
Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk hosted an official visit by US Vice President Joseph Biden beginning April 20. Coincidentally, the first military offensive was launched on April 15 after CIA Director John Brennan made a quiet visit to Kyiv.
That one quickly broke down when Ukrainian troops realized they were not confronting “terrorists” but, instead, unarmed civilians with deep grievances against the government. Civilians shouted at the soldiers and told them to put down their guns.
Yatsenyuk told NBC television last weekend that he wants more support from the U.S., including for Ukraine’s military. “We need financial and economic support. We need to overhaul the Ukrainian military. We need to modernize our security and military forces.”
The renewed assault by the Ukraine government is a dangerous escalation being matched by the big powers. The U.S. has dispatched 600 additional soldiers to Poland, Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania. It is conducting naval exercises in the Black Sea, including with Romania, which borders on the majority Russian-speaking region in southwest Ukraine. NATO will hold military exercises on Ukrainian territory in July.
The U.S. and its NATO allies say they will place sanctions on Russia’s economy if it intervenes militarily in Ukraine. Last month, in the aftermath of the March 16 vote in Crimea to secede from Ukraine and join the Russian Federation, the big powers sanctioned specific Russian business and political leaders, but not the all-important oil or gas industries. The U.S. accuses Russia of fostering unrest in eastern Ukraine and having a secretive agenda to annex the region.
It might seem downright unfair for the U.S. to blame Russia for stirring unrest when Russia’s business interests and its political stability, too, are threatened by a restive population in eastern Ukraine aspiring for a modicum of social justice. But such is the ruthlessness of the world’s superpower when dealing with its capitalist rivals, particularly those who are not its traditional allies in NATO or in the “Five Eyes” spying alliance.
Canada, a NATO member and one of the Five Eyes, is joining the NATO buildup. It has added six fighter aircraft to its existing force in Europe. Foreign minister John Baird made a bellicose visit to Poland and the Baltic states on April 24 and 25.
Russia is responding forcefully to the attacks and threats against it. Foreign minister Sergei Lavrov has told Russia Today television, “Russian citizens being attacked is an attack against the Russian Federation.”
“If our interests, our legitimate interests, the interests of Russians have been attacked directly, like they were in South Ossetia [Georgia], I do not see any other way but to respond in full accordance with international law.”
In 2008, a pro-imperialist government in Georgia launched an invasion to seize the autonomous region of South Ossetia that shares a border with Georgia and Russia. That attack was quickly repelled by Ossetian and Russian military forces. South Ossetia declared itself a sovereign republic. A recent survey by the Washington Post found overwhelming support in South Ossetia for integration into the Russian Federation.
Russian President Vladimir Putin told a televised media forum in St. Petersburg on April 24, “If the current regime in Kyiv has begun to use the army against its country’s population then it is, without any doubt, a very serious crime against their people.” He has said all along that Russia will act to defend Russian language people in eastern Ukraine.
“If these people have opted for a hot stage, which is in fact a counter-insurgency operation, it will definitely have certain consequences for those who make such decisions,” Putin said.
What the people want
Nicolai Petrov says there is a strong consensus in eastern Ukraine for political autonomy. He says it is wrong to claim that the protest movement there is about secession from Ukraine and integration with Russia. “… it is inaccurate—and I have to stress this—inaccurate to call them pro-Russian or separatist, because what they are asking for is autonomy—some define that as federalism, some do not—in any case, a greater say in local affairs within the Ukrainian federation.”
Commenting on the new government in Kyiv, Petrov says, “… much as we were seeing in the previous three months an expression of civil society in the western and central regions [of Ukraine], the reaction against the takeover of power in February was an expression of a similar civic concern and, indeed, the beginnings, at least, of the emergence of a civil society in the east, but around very different issues, issues of concern to the population there. Specifically, will they be able to retain their cultural identity? Will they be able to preserve their economic ties, which are strong, with Russia?”
There are, of course, many people in eastern Ukraine who do not wish for greater autonomy. The region is multinational and there are divided political and historical loyalties. Those whose sympathies lie with Ukraine believe that autonomy will lead to closer ties with Russia. But Petrov cites a poll conducted in April by the Kyiv Institute of International Studies in the eight, majority Russian-speaking regions of Ukraine (in the east and south of the country). It shows that only 25 per cent of respondents favour closer economic ties to Europe. Forty seven per cent want closer ties in the opposite direction — with Russia. Eighty per cent said that ties between Ukraine and Russia should be friendly and, unlike with other countries, borders should be completely open.
One of the most informative of the foreign journalists in eastern Ukraine is National Public Radio’s Eleanor Beardsley. Her frequent reports challenge a simplistic view of an eastern Ukraine prone to violence and wracked by “separatist” and “pro-Russian” sentiments.
Beardsley reported from Donetsk on April 19: “Though Kyiv’s interim government offered concessions to the separatists on Friday [April 18] proposing a plan that would give eastern regions more autonomy and the Russian language a special status, nobody here seems to believe them or care. People say they either want to become a separate country or a part of Russia, and it’s not just the older crowd longing for a return to Soviet days. A group of young people handing out fliers wear bright red T-shirts marked ‘USSR 2.0’, suggesting a computer upgrade from the original version.”
In an interview from Slavyansk on April 21, Beardsley reports overwhelming support in the industrial city of 120,000 for the protest movement. Referring to the armed protesters occupying government building, she reported, “So they’re absolutely not leaving, and the population supports them. They say these separatists are protecting their city from the fascist elements in Kyiv.”
She went on, “I don’t know how the Ukrainian government is going to get control over places like this… I think the Ukrainian central government has lost control of towns like Slavyansk.”
Beardsley has broadcast several reports on the grinding economic conditions in the industrial region of Donbass. The capital city Donetsk is an attractive city, she says, but conditions are grim in smaller cities such as Slavyansk. Ukraine’s per capita GDP is considerably less than in Russia and “the people feel that Russia offers greater economic prospects.”
The Globe’s Mark MacKinnon painted a withering economic portrait of the industrial and coal mining city of Horlivka in an April 21 dispatch. He wrote:
“In much of the Donbass region — as the coal basin around the city of Donetsk is known — Soviet times [pre-1990] meant a job for life, a guaranteed pension and free medical care. The coal miners and factory workers who lived here were lionized as heroes of Soviet labour. Today, more than half of the 230 coal mines here have been closed for good. Average salaries in cities such as Horlivka are barely $100 a month, just above the cost of living.”
“People here live on $2 a day. You don’t think we should fight? You don’t think we should demand a normal life?” said Oleg Korenyev, who says he used to work as a taxi driver in Kyiv. “In Kyiv, people can afford to pay $4 or $5 for a cup of coffee. Do we deserve worse than people in Kyiv?”
The NPR’s Beardsley says the rightist character of the government in Kyiv is a major concern of the people in the streets. They refer to it as ‘fascist’ and cite the extraordinary influence of the ‘Right Sector’ fascist movement.
“Everyone is talking about the Right Sector,” reports Beardsley. Forty two year old Victoria tells her, “We still remember how our grandparents fought the Nazis during WW2. We don’t understand why the West is protecting these people in Kyiv.”
The protest movement is calling for disarming of the fascist movement in Ukraine. Yevgeny Gordik told Reuters, “Who should surrender weapons first? Let us see Right Sector disarm first, let them make the first step and we will follow.”
In Slavyansk, 27 year old Anton criticizes the U.S. intervention in Kyiv that helped bring about a change in regime. He told Beardsley, “We don’t invade your territory, so why does America try to tell us what to do?”
The Ukrainian government is holding a presidential election on May 25. A big factor prompting its latest military intervention and the NATO buildup are the announcements by many of the city councils (communes) of the protest movement of plans to hold autonomy referendums on May 11.
In Lugansk, for example, voters will be asked whether the region should become an autonomous entity. A second vote planned for May 18 will ask whether Lugansk region should be independent or join Russia.
According to many news reports, the protest movement does not automatically look for political leadership from Russia. The leader of the “Donetsk People’s Republic,” Denis Pushilin, told The Telegraph’s David Blair that the Russian foreign minister did not speak for the movement at the meeting in Geneva on April 17. “He [Sergei Lavrov] did not do it for us — he did it in the name of the Russian Federation.”
“Nobody asked us, but all the actions of the Russian Federation are for a peaceful resolution of the conflict.”
Following the Geneva meeting, Pushilin told reporters in Donetsk, “As far as disarmament goes, the Kyiv junta has already begun violating its agreements since yesterday by announcing that it will not pull its troops out of Slavyansk and Kramatorsk.” These cities were targets of the first military assault ten days ago.
As reported on CBC television news on April 21, the new mayor of Slavyansk, Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, says “Whatever had been decided in Geneva has been decided without our participation.” He wants Russian peacekeeping soldiers in eastern Ukraine.
Ukraine is a multinational country with a long and difficult history. It was subjugated by the old Russian empire. Its borders have been redrawn by every major European war. The national liberation program of the Russian Revolution of 1917 made impressive gains in the early years, but the Revolution was ultimately overwhelmed by harsh economic and social conditions that were inherited from the old regime and greatly exacerbated by the destruction of World War I and the civil war imposed by the old regime from 1918-21. The imperialist countries, including the U.S., Canada and Britain, committed tens of thousands of soldiers to the civil war in an effort to drown the Revolution in blood.
National subjugation was reimposed by the Stalin regime that usurped power in the late 1920s and 1930s, and by its successors. In the midst of all that, Ukraine suffered the horror of the German invasion and occupation of 1941-44.
Following independence in 1991, Ukraine’s government and a new, aspiring capitalist class failed to take the country forward. As in Russia, the dismantling of the state-owned economy inherited from the Soviet Union brought only greater hardship to large sections of the population.
It will take time for a coherent, socially progressive political movement for the future of Ukraine to be created. The economy has been run into the ground. The country is squeezed by the aggressive powers to the West that want to keep Ukraine weak and subjugated, and by the Russian neighbor to the east that is pursuing its own capitalist interests.
Notwithstanding the immense challenges it faces, the achievements of the protest movement in eastern Ukraine are impressive. This is a popular, proletarian movement with strong social justice aspirations. It has acted judiciously, avoiding needless violence and winning much admiration at home and internationally. It can provide a progressive impulse to the rest of Ukraine which is otherwise enduring an alarming rise of right wing and fascist political forces.
The protest movement should be recognized and welcomed, with all its inevitable faults. Progressives around the world should act to defend it, including in whatever forms of political autonomy and association with Ukraine and Russia that the people choose. The threats and assaults of the Ukraine government and its imperialist backers against eastern Ukraine and Russia should be vigorously opposed.
–April 25, 2014