Six months after the the refusal by Ukraine’s former government, led by Victor Yanukovich, to sign an Association Agreement with the European Union (EU) sparked the ‘Euromaidan’ protests, the country is close to breaking up and sliding further into war. Hundreds have already been killed during military clashes in East and South Ukraine. Statements by the newly-inaugurated president, Petr Poroshenko, a billionaire, that the fighting should end within the week are met with disbelief and outrage in eastern Ukrainian cities, such as Slavyansk, Maryupul and Donetsk, where deadly clashes continue.
Poroshenko’s election has been approved by the EU and US governments, who see him as the most reliable of the western-orientated oligarchs. These Western ‘democracies’ are unconcerned about the inclusion of virulent anti-Russian nationalists, far-right politicians and neo-fascists in the Kiev regime, including in the justice ministry and in key posts in the armed forces.
Poroshenko promises to sign the Association Agreement and has said Ukraine should join the EU as a full member. Euromaidan was essentially an outburst of dissatisfaction by millions of Ukrainians at the consequences of the economic crisis, growing corruption, and against the hated oligarchs and moves towards authoritarianism under Yanukovich. Many who supported the protests saw joining the European bloc as an easy way to prosperity. But they will be disillusioned when they see the EU has no plans to accept the country as a member and as they begin to feel the effects of the drastic budget cuts demanded by the EU and IMF as a condition of economic aid.
The Maidan protests sparked off a brutal struggle between different sections of the Ukrainian ruling elite. Each side leans on reactionary forces, such as the neo-fascist ‘Right Sector’ and the various pro-Russian far-right forces, to control the wealth of the country, backed by the capitalist powers wanting to increase their political and military influence in Eastern Europe.
The crisis has significantly increased tensions between the Western imperialist powers. The US demands harsher sanctions against Russia, while Germany, whose economy relies heavily on trade with Russia, particularly in the energy sector, worries that sanctions could also damage the EU economy. The EU wants to prevent instability in Ukraine escalating out of control, for fear it would damage the whole of Europe. At the same time, the Putin regime acted to try to check western ambitions in Ukraine and, by signing the gas deal and other investment projects with China, forged stronger relations with Beijing.
“Crimea will always be Ukrainian”
In his inauguration speech, Poroshenko, by demanding a swift and decisive end to the “anti-terrorist action” and then declaring that “Crimea will always be Ukrainian”, demonstrated that there will be a no easy (quick) end to the crisis. Anti-Kiev rebels continue to hold key strategic points throughout Donetsk and Lugansk areas, and the events of the last two months have strengthened the mood of the population in the East against the Kiev government. The Kiev regime ordered a brutal military assault in the East and South of the country, deploying air attacks and the National Guard. Fascistic bands are set against anti-Kiev protesters and working people. Scores of anti-Kiev demonstrators and civilians were killed in Odessa, in May, after the building they were sheltering in was set alight and besieged by a pro-Kiev mob, including Right Sector thugs.
By effectively accepting the legitimacy of Poroshenko’s election and participating in the EU-mediated talks over Russian gas supplies to Ukraine, Putin has demonstrated the cynical nature of Russia’s capitalist policies. After months of propaganda about the “fascist regime” in Kiev and the need to protect Russian speakers, the Putin government is now demonstrating those rights are worth nothing when compared to its crucial economic interests, such as gas revenues. The reality is that after absorbing Crimea into the Russian federation, the Russian ruling elite understands that the financial, social and political costs of taking over other regions would be too great. To bring the productivity of the Donbas coalfield, reportedly ten times lower than in Russia, up to standard requires large investment and widespread closures, risking a huge social explosion by a working class with a tradition of struggle. The Kremlin would prefer to leave Donetsk and Lugansk within Ukraine, maybe as unrecognised republics, to use as leverage on the Kiev government.
Unification of Crimea with Russia is already expected to cost more than the Sochi Winter Olympic games. Although Russia will no longer pay rent to Ukraine for the use of the Black Sea naval base at Sevastopol, it will have to cover pensions and wages for state employees and pay to overcome major infrastructure problems. Electricity and water currently come from mainland Ukraine, and with no road access except through Ukraine, a plan to build a bridge to mainland Russia is being discussed. The cost is soaring, as negotiations are held with the Chinese to carry out the project. But the Crimean economy cannot wait for the bridge to be built. The rice crop has been lost due to the lack of water and the tourist industry is collapsing as the flow of tourists has ceased. In addition, the peninsula’s Tatar population are increasingly concerned with the new “police state”, which has accompanied Russian annexation. Thousands have fled Crimea, complaining of harassment and violence.
Tension is now centred in the Donetsk area, and, to a lesser degree, the Lugansk region. Armed groups of various loyalties are fighting to control administrative buildings, airports and other strategic sites. The Ukrainian government deploys military helicopters and armed personnel carriers against the cities, while the rebels have powerful weapons capable of downing aircraft. The population is left to look on in horror. The city of Slavyansk is under siege by the Ukrainian National Guard, which regularly shoot volleys of rockets into the city centre. Those residents who have not been able to flee are left cowering in cellars.
“People’s Republic of Donetsk”
The self-declared “People’s Republic of Donetsk (PRD)”, led by a combination of pro-Russian far-right wingers, anti-Semites, ex-military, and former riot police, has armed forces under the command of “supreme commander” Igor Girkin, the “archer”, a self-confessed “former” Russian special services operative. The militia has allegedly been involved in looting, general harassment of the population, and, under the guise of an “anti-drugs campaign”, pogroms against the Roma community.
At the end of May, armed militants from the “Vostok battalion” attacked the headquarters of PRD, arresting a number of fighters on charges of looting and harassment, in what has been called a coup d’etat. Although PRD leaders later claimed they approved of the attack, it seems Vostok acted to establish a more disciplined leadership more directly under Russian control. Vostok has its roots in a paramilitary force first established by pro-Russian mercenaries during the Chechen war that later integrated into the Russian army and was actively used in South Ossetia. In response, the Kiev government is setting up its own “Donbas” battalion of Ukrainian and Russian-speaking East Ukrainians in the National Guard.
While President Poroshenko, representing the pro-European oligarchs, directs the country’s armed forces against the East, other oligarchs are defending their positions in the East. Among them is Rinat Akmetov, the owner of large sections of the Ukrainian coal and steel industry, who played a crucial role in Yanukovich’s rise to power, before turning against him after the brutal attack on Maidan protesters by Berkut riot police. He financed, according to the self-styled “Governor” of the PRD, Pavel Gubarev, the pro-Russian separatists before turning against them in May. Either realising that chaos and threat of open war would do great damage to his business interests or acting in line with Kremlin interests to bring the rebel regions under more direct control, Akmetov directed workers and staff from his plant in Maryupol, led by the chief engineer, to patrol the city to remove barricades and to ‘establish order’.
As the powers argue over the Ukraine, the oligarchs manoeuvre to defend their business interests, and the warlords continue to wage war in the interests of their paymasters while the working people of Ukraine are left fearing that full blown war will break out.
Many in the Eastern regions who turned to support “federalisation” – initially in response to the proposed attacks by the new post-Yanukovich government on Russian language rights and the violent activities of the far-right Right Sector – have had their fears strengthened by the way Kiev has used the newly-formed National Guard in a brutal attempt to restore control in their regions. For many, federalisation means maintaining a united Ukraine but also protecting the people of the east and south from the actions of the central government. Others, particularly the pro-Russian activists, interpret federalisation as breaking away and uniting with Russia.
Those who participated in the ‘referendums’ held in Donetsk and Lugansk, on 11 May, were mainly older people who hold illusions that by joining Russia their living standards would improve and who perceive that the current Putin regime is a continuation, in some manner, of the former Soviet Union. Many youth, who consider themselves part of Ukraine, ignored the vote, as did a significant number of miners, who understand the fate awaiting the Donetsk mines if the region were to join Russia.
Although the working class, particularly the miners, have not acted in a decisive organised,independent way during the crisis, there have been significant protests. Apart from strikes by miners in the Lugansk region over wages, sporadic protests against the actions of the National Guard, as well as sometimes against the actions of the separatists, have taken place. Significantly, miners in the Lvov region, in West Ukraine, struck over the non-payment of wages. When transport workers in Crimea struck over wage delays, unknown men in army uniforms turned up to get them back to work. In early June, one thousand workers at the Crimean ‘Titan’ plant struck when their monthly wages translated into rubles were worth just 3,600 rubles (75 euros).
There have also been protests by relatives of those serving in the National Guard and police from West Ukraine against these forces being sent to the South and East. In Berdansk, relatives of police being sent to Lugansk blocked the gates of a military barracks to prevent a bus leaving, until those who wanted to left the bus and resigned from the police.
There is clearly the basis for launching a united struggle of workers across Ukraine against the slide to full scale war, and also on wages and conditions, particularly with the economy expected to decline by 5% this year. The organised working class also has a responsibility to prevent the country sinking deeper into military conflict. Toothless appeals to the Kiev government to end its anti-terrorist operation, to the separatist governments to sign peace agreements or to the outside powers to cease their intervention in the country, have less chance of success than appeals to convince a tiger to turn vegetarian. Even if some kind of “deal” is eventually signed between Kiev and Moscow, it will not resolve the underlying crisis, but would be an agreement between different bands of oligarch robbers.
For united workers’ struggle
Only united working-class struggle to resolutely counter reactionary nationalism and the warlords, to prevent attacks on living standards, to protect national minorities and to struggle for the full democratic rights of working people can force the different sides to stop military attacks.
Working people in all parts of Ukraine have the right to defend themselves against physical attacks from far-right thugs and ultra-nationalists, of whatever colours, and from state brutality. Workers and youth in the east and south face a deadly threat from Kiev-sponsored militias, including fascistic elements. Independent workers’ cross-community defence forces, democratically controlled and co-ordinated, are needed to resist the far-right menace and attacks from state forces. By linking this to the call for class struggle against all the oligarchs and outside capitalist powers’ interference, a powerful working-class alternative can be built.
This would lay the basis for the creation of a mass workers’ party that could lead the struggle to bring down those governments that are tied to capitalism and cynically use nationalism and military conflict to defend their power and wealth. A mass workers’ party would fight to replace them with a government representing the interests of working people that would transfer the wealth and natural resources of the country to collective ownership, under democratic control and management, in a planned economy – to replace rotten capitalism with a new socialist society. Only in such conditions could genuine democratic rights be fully realised and lasting, and could all the people of Ukraine determine their own future, including the right to regional autonomy, as part of a socialist Ukraine, and a wider federation of socialist states in the region, on a voluntary and equal basis.