Ukraine after the ceasefire: Contradictions pile up

On Wednesday 18 February the rebel forces in the east of Ukraine arrived in the key town of Debaltseve, control of which they have wrested from pro-Kiev forces after having encircled them and demanded surrender of the town, this advance took place after a new ceasefire was due to come into force on Sunday 15 February.

World relations and the desire for a ceasefire

This latest attempt at a ceasefire agreement was driven by Merkel and Hollande, who flew to Moscow in an attempt to draw up a “road map” to peace with Vladimir Putin. The resulting 13-point agreement, signed by Merkel, Hollande, Putin and Poroshenko, as well as the leaders of the Donetsk and Luhansk Peoples’ Republics in Minsk on Thursday 12 Feb was due to come into effect at midnight on Saturday 14 Feb. It included the withdrawal of heavy weaponry from the front, an amnesty for prisoners on both sides, the lifting of restrictions on the Republics and some form of autonomous control for the eastern Republics.

Germany has a substantial economic interest in ending the conflict in Ukraine and the resulting hostilities with Russia because Germany receives one third of its gas from Russia, which is its eleventh largest trading partner. In addition, while Merkel is busy trying to deal with the eurozone crisis and the new SYRIZA government in Greece, the problems in Ukraine are a headache she could do without.

For these reasons the Germans have always taken a softer, more diplomatic tone with Russia over the conflict in Ukraine, in contrast to the belligerent attitude of the USA whose direct economic interest in the country is not large. Although Obama himself has remained aloof from this particular conflict, he has sent Joe Biden (who has direct economic interests in Ukraine, where his son is on the board of Burisma, the country’s largest private gas producer) or John Kerry to do the USA’s dirty work.

obama-putinHowever, Obama no longer controls the US Congress, which is dominated by the Republicans, many of whom are calling more loudly for the US to arm Kiev, and he also has a lot on his foreign affairs plate already with the rise of the Islamic State. For these reasons Obama would not have concerned himself too much with the fact that the USA was not included as a party to this round of Minsk talks, although he may well have been pleased that a ceasefire was on the cards.

But Merkel has her own reasons for excluding the USA from the talks, beyond just the different economic relationships of Germany and the USA with Russia. Revelations that the US intelligence services have been spying on Merkel and other senior German Establishment figures have soured the relationship between the two countries. And the USA’s meddling in eurozone affairs regarding policy towards Greece has not gone down well with Merkel who sees such issues as the preserve of Germany. The combined effect of crises in all spheres is straining the relations between different capitalist powers.

Putin too has good reason for wanting a ceasefire in Ukraine. The West’s sanctions against Russia are hurting the economy, and coupled with the significant hit to the country’s currency reserves induced by the collapse in oil prices, means that Putin needs some respite from the pressure that economic turmoil is putting on his administration.

Poroshenko and his backers were willing to sign a ceasefire agreement because, despite an offensive by Kiev’s troops in January, the rebel counter-offensive was gaining ground and, at the time of the agreement, had encircled up to 8,000 troops in the town of Debaltseve which is a key transport hub for linking the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics. Coupled with a growing movement in the West of Ukraine against conscription for the war in the east, and anger about continued corruption in the government, despite all of Poroshenko’s promises, Kiev also requires time to regroup.

A logic of its own

Despite these powerful interests in a ceasefire, the advance of the rebels did not stop after Sunday. On Tuesday 17 February the rebels began to take Debaltseve and on Wednesday Kiev confirmed that its troops were retreating. From the point of view of the Republics, after having recovered control of the Donetsk airport, taking over Debaltseve would solidify its front line with Ukraine. They never considered Debaltseve as being covered by the Minsk II ceasefire. There was little Kiev could do about it, other than protest.

What Obama, Merkel and others fail or refuse to acknowledge is that this conflict, sparked by the Western-backed Maidan movement, with fascists at its core and antagonism of the people in the east in its programme, has now taken on a logic of its own. Zacharenko, the leader of the Donetsk People’s Republic, was quick to point out after the ceasefire had been signed that it did not mention Debaltseve at all and therefore he considered it his right to continue the fight for that key town. In a defiant statement he also said that the DPR would fight back against any provocation that came from the Kiev forces.

Meanwhile, Dmytro Yarosh, the Ukrainian MP who is also the leader of the fascist Right Sector and its paramilitary battalions, claimed that the ceasefire violated the Ukrainian constitution and vowed that his battalions would continue fighting for the unity of the whole of Ukraine.

The reality is that Putin does not have full control of what the rebel forces are doing on the ground. His standing in the eyes of many people in the east of Ukraine, who may at one time have had illusions in what he was capable of delivering in terms of higher living standards etc., has been greatly diminished. Many had the illusion that it would be enough for them to have a referendum to get decisive backing from Russia as with Crimea. Many people in the east no longer see the republics’ integration into Russia on the agenda, and are accepting their future in formally independent republics.

The Russian government has always said that some Russian troops are fighting in Ukraine as volunteers and while Putin’s insistence that this is entirely of their own accord is hard to believe, it seems certain that a mass invasion of the regular Russian army, as claimed by NATO and Kiev, has not taken place.

The OSCE Secretary General Lamberto Zannier admitted as much recently when he said that he had seen Russian individuals but no Russian units fighting in the Donbas, and Putin himself has pointed out that if he wanted to he could take Kiev in a matter of weeks. In fact, the chief of Ukraine’s General Military Staff, Viktor Muzhenko, even acknowledged that no Russian regular army units were fighting in the Donbas, but that he had information about civilian and military individuals who were present in the Republics. Ultimately though, the Kremlin exercises a degree of control over the Republics as it controls their lines of supply over the border.

Similarly, Poroshenko does not have full control over the battalions of fascists he has been recruiting into the state apparatus ever since the central role they played in the Maidan movement. Now that these people have been legitimised by being incorporated into the military command and their leaders being elected to parliament, they feel increasingly able to assert their own autonomous goals - namely the unification of Ukraine by force and the promotion of hardline reactionary Ukranian nationalism. They will not stop until the rebel Republics are smashed and they will attack anyone, including Poroshenko, who stands in their way.

In fact, one member of the neo-nazi Azov battalion told the Guardian newspaper that once the war in the East was over they’d “bring the fight to Kiev”. “What are the police going to do?” he said “they could not do anything against the peaceful protestors on Maidan, they are hardly going to withstand armed fighting units”.

This leaves Poroshenko in a very difficult position because on the one hand he needs a ceasefire to allow the country to stabilise, and he recognises that this must involve some degree of autonomy for the rebel Republics. But this is something the fascists will never accept, and if such a course is pursued then soon enough Poroshenko will find himself the subject of their anger and he will find himself with few elements of the state apparatus with which to defend himself.

The Poroshenko - Yatseniuk government relies heavily on the war rhetoric to remain in power and distract attention from the collapse of the economy and the brutal austerity policies it is implementing as dictated by the IMF. A real ceasefire would very soon reveal its weakness.

Will the USA arm Kiev?

Earlier in February US officials were reported to be seriously considering sending “lethal aid” to Ukraine for use by the Kiev government. Right wing Republican senator John McCain is one of the main advocates of this line of action. Congress has authorised such a measure but Obama has thus far been reluctant to use it for fear of coming into direct military confrontation with Russia, who would inevitably retaliate to such an escalation on the part of the USA. With the signing of a ceasefire the threat of the USA arming Kiev seems to have receded. Although the continued fighting in Debaltseve appears to put a spanner in the works of the ceasefire, now that this town has been taken it may be that the ceasefire holds for a little longer, as it appears to be doing at all other points along the front between the republics and Ukraine.

The case for lethal US intervention was slightly undermined recently by a farcical situation in which Republican Senator James Inhofe, a firm advocate of arming Kiev, showed pictures of Russian tanks which he claimed were invading Ukraine. It later turned out that these pictures, provided to him by Ukrainian MP and commander of Donbas Battalion Semyon Semenchenko, dated from the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia. Such events will remind the American people all too clearly of how they were lied to about WMDs in Iraq as the pretext for intervention there. There is little appetite among ordinary Americans for embroiling their country in further conflict for no clearly discernable reason.

Perspectives for class struggle

But what is the position on the ground and the perspective for class struggle in the Republics and in Ukraine? In circumstances of civil war such as Ukraine is experiencing at present the military aspect takes precedence over social and economic elements. This means the subordination of those initial, class based demands of the anti-maidan movement in what are now the eastern Republics, to the militaristic, opportunist and in some cases Russian nationalist and other suspect elements which have taken over the leadership of the Republics.

This has led to the Communist Party being prevented from running in the republics’ elections at the end of last year due to “irregularities in their paperwork”. Furthermore four anti-fascist activists and communists, Maria Muratova, Alex Albu, Maxim Firsov and Victor Shapinov, who are members of the Marxist organisation Borotba, were arrested by one of the DPR battalions in December. They were eventually released thanks to both internal and international pressure, but in a statement upon their release they said:

“Some recent developments, including our arrest and deportation, give rise to legitimate concerns - whether the original spirit of the anti-fascist and anti-oligarchic revolt will be maintained, or will it be buried in favor of the commercial and political interests of the various groups operating in the country?”

However at the same time as this there are signs that the potential for class struggle is present. There remains a certain element of nostalgia for the USSR among people in the East who look back to a time when housing, jobs, food, clothing, education etc. were guaranteed. Indeed the DPR recently passed a memorandum on the principles of state building, political and historical continuity which traces the republic’s history back to the Russian revolution. It says:

“On February 12, 1918 at the IV Congress of Soviets of the Donetsk-Krivoy Rog basin based on the idea of economic integration created the Donetsk-Krivoy Rog Republic (DKR). Donetsk-Krivoy Rog Republic did not formally cease to exist, despite the German occupation, war and other social disasters. Its ideas lived on in the hearts and souls of millions of people.”

Furthermore the Ghost Brigade, led by Alexei Mozgovoy has been pushing an anti-oligarch agenda throughout the conflict (though this has been mixed with Orthodox Slav nationalism). In a video manifesto Mozgovoy explains that it is the oligarchs who are responsible for the destruction of Ukraine and that they would rather see death and chaos than the loss of their profits. He speaks about the need to expropriate the palaces built at public expense, to provide decent education and healthcare and other social support to people in Ukraine, as well as pointing out that there is a lot of wealth in Ukraine that rightly belongs to the people who live there, not the parasitic oligarchs. Mozgovoy has also been in communication with some anti-oligarch elements in Kiev – notably Ukrainian lawyer and politician Tetiana Montian – who visited him in Alchevsk.

The Ghost Brigade were among the first to enter Debaltseve after it was taken by rebel forces. Within the Ghost Brigade there operates a Communist Battalion, whose commander entered the town wearing a traditional Eastern European fur hat with a red star and hammer and sickle emblazoned on the front of it. Mozgovoy’s statements in favor of a class war of the people against the oligarchs and his association with traditional soviet imagery has an echo among many people.

Meanwhile in the West of Ukraine there is a growing movement against the fratricidal war in the East. One woman, a worker at an NGO in Lviv, said “[My husband] said he was ready to defend Ukraine. I have a lot of questions about who is defending whom. For me, this seems like a kind of sacrifice, one in which the Church also participates, by giving its blessing: those who have power over the people pluck up guys, and, whether or not you want to, whether or not you can, you’re sent to this dragon to be devoured.”

Such sentiment is unsurprising when those who are forced to fight for Poroshenko and his cronies in the East are given little training or equipment. According to the New Yorker new recruits have to buy several thousand dollars’ worth of supplies and equipment before the three week training programme, after which the conscripts are sent to the front. For those with families and little money such circumstances are a death sentence. One man told the journalists “I don’t want to be cannon fodder” and there is a growing movement to mount legal challenges against the conscription on the grounds that Ukraine has not declared war. The feeling that has always existed on a certain level in the West of Ukraine - that this is not the people’s war but that of the oligarchs and the politicians - is finding more fertile ground now and is beginning to develop.

For these reasons the morale of Kiev’s troops is low even before they reach the front, but what they find when they get there only makes things worse. The Ukrainian Ministry of Defence usesa standard military medical kit prescribed by the USSR in the 1970s, which has not been updated since. One man working at a medical centre for wounded soldiers said

“This centre has only enough supplies for fifty people. It’s just a drop in the bucket. The Army is still on the level it was on during the Afghan war. There isn’t enough of anything, and everything’s getting figured out along the way. No one knew, at first, except maybe the occasional medic, what Celox was, and why it’s needed to stop the bleeding on a torn-off leg.” (Celox is a brand of hemostatic gauze.) “No one knew anything about night-vision goggles. Now they know. But it’s all trial and error. People buy boots, for instance, and then find out they’re fine for a checkpoint but not for running in the snow. There was no coordination of donations—people bought the wrong things or the wrong quantities. You’d end up with a houseful of buckwheat at a checkpoint.”

Part of the reason for the poor state of the Ukrainian military is the rampant corruption in the government. Military aid passes through the Ministry of Defence where large portions of it are simply stolen. In September there were reports that the Kiev City 12th Battalion had been set up purely to steal equipment as it was delivered. In January an advisor to the government estimated that 20-25% of all money allocated to the Ministry of Defence was stolen by corrupt officials. The people at the front are being forced to fight a fratricidal war, while those in whose interests they are fighting are getting rich by stealing essential supplies needed by the soldiers. Such a state of affairs cannot but expose Poroshenko and his allies as no better than Yanukovych or any other oligarch. There is potential for the class question to be brought to the fore.  

But if Kiev is undermining the support from and morale of its own troops, the psychology of people in the East is on an entirely different level. From the very beginning, following the removal of Yanukovych, the Western-backed government in Kiev has been provoking people in the East. These provocations have escalated into a full blown war against the Donbas. Kiev has blockaded Donetsk and Luhansk, cutting off access to money, medicine, food, electricity, pensions, as well as blocking humanitarian aid. The Kalininsky hospital in Donetsk is the largest in the region but only has supplies to treat its 90 dialysis patients for two to four more weeks - these people will die unless more supplies arrive. These actions by Kiev have hardened people’s attitudes in the East towards the government, many no longer consider themselves Ukrainian and see the war as a fight for their homes and families against a hostile government backed by fascists.

This feeling in the East is no longer possible to ignore, and it makes the argument that the conflict can be put down to Russian aggression harder to sustain, not least because 900,000 refugees from the conflict have fled to Russia, not to Ukraine. As much is even being admitted by a number of Western journalists, some of whom have been, up until now, staunchly pro-Maidan but who have recently visited the Republics and spoken to the people themselves.

One 15 year old boy, Sasha Vasin, explained why he had joined the rebel militia.“I wanted to do it from the first day. I couldn’t look at people dying anymore” And another 20 year-old woman who was interviewed said: “Everyone here is against Ukraine. When you hear the cannonade, you look at things differently. You don’t have to be a soldier to see where they’re firing from.”

Such a change in consciousness explains much of the strength of the rebel forces. One soldier retreating from Debaltseve told the Financial Times that Putin must be controlling the rebels because otherwise how could a ragtag bunch of kids be winning against a professional army? This misses the point that the rebels, by and large, are fighting for a cause they believe in, whereas the Kiev forces are increasingly disillusioned with what they are fighting for. It is this fact, not a mythical Russian invasion, that explains the relative strength of the two sides.

On top of all of this, journalists based in the West of Ukraine have been increasingly speaking out against the war. Ruslan Kotsaba, a well known journalist, recently made a video in which he said:

“It would be better for me to spend two to five years in prison than to go into a civil war, to kill or help kill my countrymen in the east. . . . I reject this draft, and I call on all sensible people to reject it.”

On 8 February Kotsaba was arrested by the SBU, the Ukrainian Secret Service on suspicion of treason. The authorities are worried by this anti-war sentiment that is beginning to take root and are cracking down on those who try to nurture or encourage it. Kotsaba is still currently locked up, having been given 60 days pre-trial confinement with no bail. This is part of a wider assault by the government against democratic rights, arresting anyone who dares raise a voice against the war.

While the conflict rages on, the fundamental causes of the initial removal of Yakukovych and all the subsequent events have yet to be resolved, and are in fact, being aggravated further.The Euromaidan movement formally stood against the corruption of the oligarchs and Ukraine’s economic crisis. This is the result of capitalism, and its particularly virulent mafia form in Ukraine. What has happened since? The IMF recently granted Ukraine additional bailout money bringing the figure to around $22 billion in total. Naturally this comes with strings attached to benefit the international bourgeoisie, and the IMF is brutally honest in how badly this is going to hurt Ukraine. The economy contracted by 7.5% in 2014 and the currency has collapsed over the last few weeks. The IMF is therefore demanding huge cuts in public spending and the break-up of the subsidised fuel prices for people, via the state owned company Naftogaz which has, up till now, provided fuel at a cost of roughly 20-30% the cost of producing it, with 4% of GDP going to subsidise the rest. Wages and pensions are to be fixed, in a climate where inflation is very high, and price increases on fuel and some cuts are to be “front-loaded” so that they happen very quickly and all at once - domestic gas prices are expected to increase fivefold in the next four years.

Under conditions of war and terrible living standards, to impose such a burden on the people of Ukraine is monstrous. No doubt the IMF is hoping to take advantage of the instability caused by the war to pile on extra cuts to living standards. But there is only so much that people can take and eventually there will be a straw that breaks the camel’s back. The Greek people are proving that they are not willing to accept these kind of attacks. The Ukranian people, whose living standards are far below those of the Greeks, will be even less able to bear the cost of the capitalist economic crisis, as well as the weight of the oligarchs’ war.

What does the future hold?

Having taken Debaltseve the rebels may be content to observe the fragile ceasefire, at least for a time, and this could be reciprocated by the forces in Ukraine. However, things are balanced on a knife edge and there are so many independent factors, not under the control of those who signed the Minsk agreement, that things can change sharply very quickly.

However, what remains clear is that the potential for class struggle is there, both in the Republics and in Ukraine. The class contradictions in society are being brought to the surface, a process that will be accelerated by the actions of the IMF and by relative calm on the military front.

But what is lacking in Ukraine is an organisation capable of uniting people across east and west on a class basis and under a socialist banner. Until an organisation capable of challenging capitalism is present, the threats and reality of economic and military catastrophe will be ever present. The building of such an organisation is the task of Marxists in Ukraine, and all over the world.