The situation in Ukraine has turned dramatically to the worse since the article in the last issue of The Project. A ceasefire in June held only for a few days. Since then the conflict between the Kiev government’s forces, aided by fascist and nationalist units, and the pro-Russian forces in eastern Ukraine, backed by Russia, has developed into a bloody civil war. The situation for the civilian population of the major cities in eastern Ukraine has been dreadful.
This war does not benefit the working class of Ukraine, whether in the east or the west of the country; whether Russian speaking or Ukrainian speaking. It is a war between two rival capitalist interests. Putin and the Russian capitalist ruling class are on one side. The new Ukrainian President Poroshenko, backed by the USA, the EU and NATO are on the other. Caught in between is the working class of Donetsk, Luhansk and the other towns and cities in the eastern part of the country. The battle is over the industrial heartland of eastern Ukraine, a key strategic location between Russia and the west.
Over 2,600 have been killed in the fighting since mid-April. According to the United Nations, 36 people are killed every day. At least 6,000 have been injured. The fighting in and around Donetsk, Luhansk and the neighbouring towns has driven hundreds of thousands from their homes. The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) estimates that the number of people displaced within Ukraine more than doubled in August to 260,000. This is probably an underestimation as many of those displaced stay with family or friends and do not register with the authorities. Since the start of the year some 814,000 Ukrainians have fled to Russia, 66,000 in August alone. Altogether, more than one million Ukrainians have been forced out by the fighting.
The Ukrainian government says that there are still 2.2 million people remaining in the conflict area. Those that remain have faced constant bombardment by Kiev government forces, causing massive destruction and depriving tens of thousands of easy access to food, water, electricity and other basic necessities. Many of those who remain are older people, institutionalised children and those with disabilities. The pro-Russian fighters have also destroyed aspects of infrastructure, such as major road and rail bridges, to prevent the government forces from advancing. The United Nations Human Rights Organisation also reports abuses on both sides.
In the week up to 2 September around 10,000 people left Mariupol on the Azov Sea, as the rebel pro-Russian forces began to approach. As we go to press, just as for the previous issue, a ceasefire has been agreed but shelling in the outskirts of Mariupol continues.
There has also been the horrific shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 on 17 July, killing all 283 passengers and 15 crew. While the issue is still hotly disputed, it seems most likely that this was a tragic mistake by the separatist forces, using sophisticated anti-aircraft missiles provided by Russia that they were not trained to use, mistaking this civilian aircraft for a Ukrainian military one.
It is in the interests of the working class in eastern Ukraine, western Ukraine and elsewhere that this ceasefire holds. We do not want to see more people killed, injured or turned into refugees in a war being fought in the interests of others. Whether it holds or not is impossible to predict. It is quite possible that we are set for a long period of talks and outbreaks of armed conflict, followed by more armed conflict and outbreaks of talks.
At one stage it appeared as though the Ukrainian government forces were about to take back Donetsk and Luhansk, which had been in rebel hands since April. However, the separatist forces were given a massive boost when they were reinforced by at least a thousand Russian troops and extra weapons, in what amounted to an invasion of Ukrainian territory by Russia. Prior to this, Russian soldiers were clearly already involved in the fighting and the separatists had been provided with hardware and advice to prosecute their military campaign but this marked a serious escalation of the conflict. Russia, of course, denies that it has troops in Ukraine.
From the outset, the west has been determined to oust Russian influence and control from the Ukraine. Russia, in turn, has been determined to maintain it, seeing the eastern Ukraine as a vital area of interest – a protective buffer as well as economically important.
President Putin has cynically, but extremely skilfully and successfully, manipulated the situation to protect Russia’s interests. He has used the presence of fascist and far-right Ukrainian nationalist elements in the ‘Maidan’ movement that brought down the pro-Russian former President Yanukovich in February of this year and subsequently in the new government and the armed forces to great effect, playing on the memory of the great war against fascism (WWII) to mobilise people in the east in an ‘anti-fascist resistance’. Of course, the bitter irony of the situation is that there are large numbers of fascists and right-wing nationalists on both sides of this war.
The Ukrainian government has fuelled this sentiment with its proposal to repeal a law which allowed for Russian to be an official language in regions in which 10% of the population spoke it. The government also moved to dissolve the pro-Russian Communist Party, which received 13% of the vote in 2012, winning 32 seats in the 450 seat-Rada or parliament.
The Kiev government of Poroshenko and Prime Minister Yatseniuk is a government of the oligarchs, the richest in the land who made their billions out of the sell-off of state businesses after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Many of these have been appointed as governors of Ukraine’s Oblasts or regions. Ihor Kolomoisky, for example, is a banking billionaire, the second or third richest man in Ukraine, worth £3 billion. The Kiev government appointed him governor of the Dnipropetrovsk region. He has used his own finances, to the tune of £10 million a month, to create his own private army and police force for use against the rebels in the east and against any who challenge the rule of big business.
Not People’s Republics
Before the military conflict began there was a sizeable minority in the east that favoured separation from Ukraine and incorporation into Russia, but the overwhelming majority preferred more autonomy, not separation. No doubt this minority has significantly grown, possibly into a majority, as a result of the military offensive against them by Kiev forces. However, the action by a small number of separatists in occupying government buildings in the east and proclaiming the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR), without any popular mandate plunged the civilian population into a military conflagration it did not ask for and had not prepared for. The only beneficiaries have been Putin and Russia, who appear now to have forced the Kiev government to accept a ceasefire that is to Russia’s advantage.
It is not clear how far Putin is prepared to go to defend Russia’s interests in eastern Ukraine. Would he be prepared to launch an all out invasion and escalate to a full-scale war involving Russian troops, possibly leading to the division of Ukraine in two, with the east joining Russian as the Crimea did? While that can’t be ruled out, if necessary at some stage, it seems as though his strategy all along has been to destabilise the east to such an extent that Kiev cannot rule completely in its own interests, leaving the region under Russian influence and de facto control. This would be achieved by obtaining a large degree of autonomy for the eastern regions within a more federatal Ukraine. This is the situation that appears to have been reached. That is why Russia sent in its troops when the separatist rebels appeared to be on the retreat. Russia could not allow Kiev to defeat its subaltern forces and deny it control over an area of such vital importance to Russian interests.
NATO has been split on how to respond to Russia, with the major powers of the USA, Britain and Germany reluctant to arm Ukraine or to get involved in a proxy war with Russia that could escalate and destabilise the whole region. Other countries in the east, particularly the Baltic States and Poland, are much more concerned about the consequences of an unchecked Russia on their own situations and have pressed for NATO to provide arms to Kiev. NATO has, for the time being, backed off from raising the temperature even further.
Putin appears to have obtained a large part of his objective – what is being described as a ‘frozen conflict’, that is, leaving large parts of eastern Ukraine in the control of the Russian-backed rebels, while forcing Kiev to agree to a ceasefire and to hold talks that could go on for a long time. This could also prevent the Ukraine from joining NATO, as Prime Minister Yetseniuk is calling for.
The leaders of the so-called People’s Republics all appear to have been self-appointed, none have been elected by popular democratic elections. Many (as Ben Neal’s article in this issue shows) have a background in Russian far right politics or the Russian military. They were clearly involved in the east on behalf of Russian interests and at the behest of Putin. The ideology of the movement is a reactionary pan-Russian nationalism. The newly created federation of the DPR and the LPR is called the Federal State of Novorossiya, Novorossiya being the name for the territory north of the Crimea in the Russian Empire of the 18th and 19th centuries. (Both ‘People’s Republics’ have done much to discredit the very concept.) On the other side, this Russian nationalism is mirrored by an equally reactionary Ukrainian nationalism. Once again, as we saw in the Balkans twenty years ago, we see how nationalism drives apart working class communities who have lived and worked together for decades without conflict.
The right to speak one’s own language is clearly a right to be protected. But one wonders whether the majority of the population, if given a say, would have decided to embark at that stage in a military conflict to defend that right. They were not given a say. The working class populations of Donetsk, Luhansk and elsewhere do not appear to have had any involvement in the appointment of their ‘leaders’ and have not been consulted at any stage about the prosecution of the conflict.
New class struggle
The Kiev government is introducing draconian cuts and other assaults on working-class living standards, in order to meet the demands of the IMF, which has loaned it $17billion. This is the fight that the working class of both parts of Ukraine needs to take up. But the nationalist divisions make this more difficult, if not impossible. Once more, the working class will pay the price, this time in falling living standards, loss of jobs and a precarious future.
A ceasefire, if it holds, could give the working class the opportunity to begin to have its own voice and to influence events. Socialists must support a ceasefire and oppose any return to war. Both the Kiev troops and the Russian forces should withdraw from the eastern regions. Russian language rights, along with all civil rights – the right to assemble and to protest, must be guaranteed. Elections must be called and allowed to take place. The working class has to assert its right to speak on its own behalf, and not to have self-appointed leaders speak for them. It is to be hoped that socialist ideas will find a way into these communities: rather than the private ownership of the country’s wealth and resources by a few oligarchs, the democratic ownership by the people who create that wealth.
The working class has no interest in fighting against itself, only in fighting against the oligarchs, both Ukrainian and Russian. It must oppose the governments in both Kiev and Moscow. The working-class must look to its own strength and the support of the working class in the rest of the region.