Since the following article was written on May 1, dramatic events have shaken Ukraine. The governing regime in Kyiv has deepened its military attacks against the anti-austerity and pro-autonomy movements in eastern and southern Ukraine. It is encouraging the formation of extreme-right and fascist militias to assist its army. Rightists and fascists in the city of Odessa committed atrocities on May 2. An arson attack on the city’s trade union headquarters killed dozens and injured scores. Police stood aside and watched. The NATO military alliance is standing shoulder to shoulder with the regime and staging threatening military moves and further sanctions against Russia. A forthcoming article by this writer will examine these most recent events.
Less than one week following an announcement of a renewed offensive against ‘terrorism’ in the east of Ukraine, the governing regime in Kyiv now says it is helpless in trying to control the restive population there. A broad, popular surge is sweeping the region in which citizens are taking over public buildings and organizing plebiscites on May 11 and 18 over proposals for political autonomy.
Among the large cities to fall completely under local control in recent days are Horlivka, population 300,000, in Donetsk region, and Luhansk, 450,000, in Luhansk region.
In Luhansk*, a crowd gathered in front of the regional administration building on April 29 and then moved in. The Wall Street Journal reports that three additional buildings were occupied — regional police headquarters, prosecutor’s office and television broadcasting facilities. It says the rally at the administration building involved “thousands.” The Guardian’s Luke Harding put the number at 3,000. He reports from the city that all major public buildings in Luhansk have been occupied.
He writes that a similar process has taken place in Horlivka.
BBC News reports that President Oleksander Turchynov has criticized the police in Luhansk for “inaction” and “criminal treachery.” His regime’s ‘anti-terrorism’ offensive in eastern Ukraine has repeatedly broken down because police and the soldiers of the Ukraine army have simply refused to fire upon their fellow citizens.
The Guardian’s Harding says that many police in Luhansk went over to the side of protesters, taking their weapons with them. An officer in Donetsk, the largest city in eastern Ukraine with one million inhabitants, told him on April 28, “This situation is all Kyiv’s fault. They say we in the east are slaves, half-humans. They revere people like Stepan Bandera [the second world war Ukrainian nationalist leader] who shot our brothers. We are normal citizens like everyone else.”
President Turchynov said at a meeting with regional governors on April 29, “I will be frank: Today, security forces are unable to quickly take the situation in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions under control.” The news story reporting Turchynov’s bleak assessment also reports that Ukraine’s Parliament recently tried to craft a referendum vote that would provide for a looser, federal political order for the country. It couldn’t reach agreement on whether to do so.
Harding writes, “The reality is that Kiev’s authority has vanished, probably forever.”
The term “separatist” is now universally deployed by mainstream media to describe the pro-autonomy movement in eastern Ukraine. An exception, much closer to the truth, is an Associated Press report in the April 30 Toronto Star, which says, “Regional autonomy is a core issue in the unrest in eastern Ukraine, where insurgents fear the government that took power after Yanukovych will suppress the region’s Russian-speaking people.”
Rightist political forces in Ukraine are turning to creating militias to do the dirty work that regular soldiers are refusing to do. Robert Parry, editor of Consortium News, details the formation of militias and other actions of the rightists in an April 19 article in Truthout.
One such militia is presumed to be responsible for one of the few acts of bloodletting that has occurred during the upsurge, an attack on a protest checkpoint outside the city of Slavyansk on April 20 that killed three people.
But the militias are up against a population that is organized, has a political objective — opposition to austerity and in favour of regional autonomy — and that has access to weapons to defend itself. Hence the looming shadow of a much larger military force — the NATO military alliance. NATO countries are responding to the upsurge with military threats and buildup of forces in eastern Europe. They are couching their threats against eastern Ukraine with unfounded accusations against Russia, accusing it of orchestrating the unrest for its narrow interests.
The big powers are targeting a larger number of Russian individuals for economic sanctions. But they have stopped short of sanctions against entire industries or institutions in Russia because of the damage that would cause to economic relations with Russia’s capitalist economy, including all-important supplies of natural gas to central and western Europe
Globe and Mail business writer Brian Milner pens a column on April 29 (subscriber only) examining the difficult prospects for economic sanctions against Russia. He writes, “To have any sort of impact, the West must set up effective roadblocks that impinge on Russia’s vital connections to global financial, trade and investment flows. But heavy sanctions come with a cost neither Washington nor Brussels has shown a willingness to pay… at least not yet.”
Perhaps, too, the hesitations on Russia sanctions are a hint of who and what, exactly, NATO countries are concerned about — not existing or future business partners in Russia but the rebellious people of eastern Ukraine.
Uncertainty on the NATO side over what it can do was voiced by the head of the air force squad that Canada has sent to the eastern Europe as part of the NATO buildup. Canada has dispatched six CF-18 fighter aircraft and, according to The Globe and Mail’s Steven Chase, as many as 250 personnel.
“There is a lot of uncertainty about what we’re going to be doing over there,” said Lt.-Gen. Yvan Blondin at an April 29 press conference including Canada’s defense minister. Blondin said the CF-18s will likely be taking part in routine training exercises. “We’re going to go to Romania. When we get there, it’s going to be day-to-day flying like we do in Bagotville [Quebec], except it’s going to be training with Romanian and other NATO countries from day to day. And then we’ll see.
“We’re not sure how long we’re going to be staying, but we’ll be staying until the government tells us it’s time to come back,” Blondin said.
The Canadian warplanes will be based in Romania. Countries in western Europe are also stationing more military aircraft eastward, including Britain, France and Denmark.
There hasn’t been a peep of opposition in Canada’s Parliament to the Harper government’s decision to send fighter aircraft to threaten the people of Ukraine. The Toronto Star’s Thomas Walkom concludes his column of April 30 with a piercing question for Canada’s members of Parliament: “Are Canadians prepared to wage war over who controls the Donetsk region of Ukraine? Are they willing to lose lives in order to protect Romanian air space?”
He makes an observation that has to be weighing heavily on the minds of the would-be war-makers in Ottawa: “Canada’s military is exhausted by the war in Afghanistan. So is Canada’s population.”
Australian writer Renfrey Clarke has published a concise analysis in Truthout of the anti-austerity concerns that are propelling the people of eastern Ukraine into rebellion. Their actions are fuelled by concerns over the Kyiv government’s embrace of austerity diktats from the European Union and international financial institutions. These are a condition of the financial assistance the government is seeking.
Clarke’s article begins, “The economic plans of Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk and his government in Ukraine will amount less to austerity than to economic evisceration.” Kyiv’s Europe dreams will require a top to bottom upheaval of the economy of eastern Ukraine, including ties to the markets where it sells and purchases its products. The result will be economic retrenchment to exceed, even, that suffered by countries in southern Europe of late, such as Greece.
No wonder the people are in rebellion and NATO is troubled. Pro-autonomy votes will likely have damaging economic consequences for the people in the short term. But those couldn’t be worse than what European austerity programs have on offer. And as peoples throughout eastern Europe and Russia take inspiration from events in eastern Ukraine, a new kind of destiny will take shape in which ordinary people may have some say in their future.
* “Luhansk” is the Ukrainian-language transliteration of the name; “Lugansk” is the Russian version.
This article first appeared on Truthout on May 5, 2014 and is reprinted with permission.