Ukrainian president Oleksandr Turchynov declared yesterday in a live televised address that a full-scale operation involving the army will be launched to regain control over Eastern Ukraine. Whether it is a bluff or a real threat, which the Ukrainian government has the will and means to enforce, is yet to be seen. But today, the same Turchynov has declared that the Kiev government is not against holding a referendum in Eastern Ukraine and set a date for May 25. Meanwhile, there is talk of Kiev asking for UN peacekeepers. This all shows the insoluble mess the Ukrainian authorities have got themselves into.
Even the presidential candidate Yulia Tymoshenko, otherwise quite blunt in her anti-Russian stance, has come out advising that the situation in the south-eastern regions of Ukraine should be resolved through negotiations and without using violence.
An ultimatum for pro-Russian militiamen to abandon the occupied government buildings and police stations they took over earlier last week in a number of cities has expired this morning with no effect. In Sloviansk, Ukranian security forces have taken back the government buildings occupied by the insurgents with heavy fighting and losses on both sides, but the insurgency is spreading to new cities as we are writing. The latest is Gorlovka, with a population of 290,000 – a mining and chemical industrial centre.
If the army were to be deployed to suppress this pro-Russian insurgency that spans from Donetsk to Kramatorsk, Sloviansk and many more cities, this would simply represent a desperate attempt from the Ukrainian government to regain control over the region. However, it could be the perfect excuse for Putin to order the military intervention of the Russian army, which should be ready to act, having amassed forces along the border with Ukraine over several weeks. This would be officially justified by Russia as defending the livelihoods of the mainly Russian or pro-Russian population of that part of the Ukraine, many of whom are also Russian citizens.
An open conflict between the Russian and Ukrainian armed forces would become inevitable under those circumstances. But what is the real situation on the ground?
Once again it seems that the Russians have been preparing for the possibility of a conflict, while Turchynov's belligerent speeches have little means to be carried out in practice by the extremely demoralised, debilitated and destabilised Ukrainian armed forces. The Western powers are vocally supporting the Kiev government. But, in spite of all the noise, they are keeping themselves at a safe distance from a potential direct involvement. In practice they have left Turchynov on his own and deserted him in the moment of truth. Furthermore, Russia is counting on the active support of a decisive part of the population in these regions. The outcome of this confrontation, unfortunately for Turchynov, cannot be other than one favourable to Russia.
The Ukrainian crisis is spinning swiftly and surely out of control as events are gaining a logic of their own. We explained in previous articles that a Russian occupation of East Ukraine would not be as smooth and bloodless as it happened to be the annexation of Crimea. A sizeable part of the population of East Ukraine (including many ethnic Ukranians) is inclined to accept a Russian intervention as in their own interests or at least to regard it as a lesser evil. But there is also a part of the population, far from negligible that is feeling threatened by the prospect of a Russian takeover and will oppose it by all means. A trickle of hundreds of armed militiamen belonging to extreme right wing, neo-Nazi and Ukrainian nationalist groups are moving into the region to fight against a possible Russian invasion. There are reports of Ukranian nationalist citizens being organised into armed militias in several of the Eastern cities. Bloody clashes between Ukranian nationalists and anti-Maidan supporters have already taken place in Kharkov.
The strategic needs of Russian imperialism cannot be met with the partition of the Ukraine. In the medium term, Putin needs to reassert Russian influence on the whole of the neighbouring country; in the long term, occupation of the Ukraine would be unsustainable for Russia. Moscow just hasn’t the military forces powerful enough to dissuade Turchynov from further escalating the conflict. But it does have quite substantial economic leverage against the Ukrainian government, which is presently carrying out extremely severe austerity measures imposed by the IMF in return for the bailout of Ukraine. These measures risk further destabilising the government in Kiev, undermining its popular support in the coming months. Putin has announced figures that prove the extreme dependence of the Ukrainian economy on subsidised gas supplies from Russia and is now proceeding to sell gas at international market prices.
For these reasons Putin's original intentions may have been to use a combination of economic pressures and the pro-Russian insurgency in the East as a means to put pressure on the government in Kiev and assert again influence over the whole country within a reasonable period of time. But whatever intentions Putin had, things are spiralling quite fast in the direction of a Russian intervention, while the extremely weak and confused reactions of the Kiev government in confronting the escalating crisis in East Ukraine may have convinced Putin to increase pressure.
A Russian plot?
The Western based international media are presenting the pro-Russian insurgency as if it were made up of Russian special forces in disguise, provocateurs and thugs sent from outside by the Kremlin in order to provoke a conflict. All the mainstream news channels and media repeat obsessively that the armed men who are seizing government buildings and police stations in one city after another are organised, trained and well equipped with Russian arms, but don't carry identification. Therefore they have to be Russian special forces in disguise, they imply.
We don't doubt that the Kremlin has quite a few agents operating in Eastern Ukraine. However, this does not exhaust the question of what the insurgency represents. Quite the contrary.
In fact, Moscow does not need to send anyone in. There are plenty of organised forces in the Ukraine, which are quite keen to support Russia from within. The Ukrainian special police, Berkut, were dissolved by the new government in Kiev on February 24, but they have not disbanded and their structures are largely still in place in a number of regions, out of government control. Also, there are army personnel, police, and sections of the secret services that are against the new government and could provide some support to the insurgents for their own reasons.
But, if the movement was just the result of a paid Russian rent-a-mob, bussed in from Russia itself together with Russian special forces and military personnel, why would Turchynov feel the need to promise a referendum? The decisive question is the popular support for the insurgency. In all of the towns that have been taken over by the insurgents, the pro-Russian Party of Regions of former president Yanukovich scored between 80 and 90 percent of the votes against Tymoshenko in the second round of the 2010 presidential elections: scores even higher than in Crimea, as this map of the electoral results shows.
Many reports from independent journalists, which have found little echo internationally, paint quite a different picture from the world’s mainstream media. The pro-Russian militias that have been coming together and are starting to shape up in the course of events show hundreds and thousands of men and women of all ages and have all the patterns of a genuine self-organised effort in a situation where the insurgency has a mass support. Just to give an example, journalists in Sloviansk showed a picture of a middle aged man in military fatigues opening up his jacket to show a Red Army medal for his combatant role in Kandahar. The picture was used to "prove" the presence of Russian soldiers in the town, but of course, at the time of the Afghanistan war, Ukraine was part of the Soviet Army and there are a lot of such middle aged men who are veterans of the Afghan war.
What has been mocked in the media almost as an outburst of Soviet nostalgia has profound roots in the mass of the population in Eastern Ukraine. The widespread use of red flags and references to the Soviet Union within the insurgency is also matched by the massive rejection of what the disintegration of the USSR and capitalist restoration brought. The post-Soviet reality is a myriad of weak mafia capitalist states where living conditions for the majority of the population has become a nightmare, while a handful of oligarchs have accumulated enormous wealth by looting the public assets of these countries. This sentiment is particularly strong in the working class of Eastern Ukraine and could even take a dangerous turn for the powerful and rich oligarchs like Akhmetov, the richest man in the country, who nominally supports the insurgency and now stands up and poses as a mediator with the Kiev government in a bid to keep it under control.
The harping back to the Soviet Union, a time before the dreadful social collapse with the break-up of the USSR, also contains some progressive elements, and these are reflected in the original declaration of the Peoples' Republic of Donetsk which contains references to collective ownership and against the exploitation of labour. What is more, the first demand of the all these insurgent cities is not annexation to Russia, but rather a referendum on federalisation, that is, a greater degree of autonomy within a united Ukraine. However, these progressive elements are also mixed with others, Russian nationalism and support for Putin – which is of course reactionary – and even Russian Imperial flags and symbols.
What the Western media often conveniently forget to say is that in the Ukraine there has been quite a lot of foreign meddling, but not just from Russia, from all parts. In fact, the echo of the power struggle between the US and the EU on one side and Russia on the other has been a central feature of Ukrainian politics over the last two decades and was at the very core of the Euro-Maidan movement. Foreign meddling is not the cause in itself of the crisis, but has accelerated its outbreak. In fact, Russia over the last 20 years has been constantly challenged in her traditional sphere of influence in the former Soviet republics especially by the US, but also Germany and the main European powers. What is new is that now Moscow is in the position to launch a counter-offensive and gain back some of the ground that had been lost.
The infamous US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland bragged back in December during an international business conference about the US investing 5 billion dollars in promoting “civil society and a good form of government” since the Ukranian declaration of independence in 1991. In plain words, the US has spent enormous amounts of cash in order to pull the Ukraine away from Russian influence by any means possible. The nature of this “civil society” they have been promoting has become apparent in the last few months with the rise of extreme right wing Ukrainian nationalist organisations including neo-Nazi outfits.
It was the vicious Ukrainian nationalism of the new government which came to power after Yanukovich's ousting that provoked the autonomist insurgency in Eastern Ukraine, where the bulk of the ethnic Russian and Russian speaking population is concentrated. Let us not forget that the first law that the new government in Kiev tried to pass was one banning Russian as an official language, a measure meant to appease the Ukrainian nationalists but that sent a clear message to the mass of the population in Eastern Ukraine, where the bulk of the industrial working class of the country is concentrated.
This movement is unleashing forces that are far more dangerous for the capitalist corrupt oligarchy in the Ukraine, in all the former Soviet republics and, last but not least important of all, Russia.
From the point of view of the working class, what is needed is a position independent both of Ukranian and of Russian nationalism and to bring the class issues to the fore. In the East they think that the way forward from the economic collapse which would be brought by closer EU integration and IMF bailout is back to the USSR. But the USSR, of course, does not exist and Russian capitalism is not interested in propping up old rusty industries in the East of Ukraine which would compete with her own. In the West they think that the way forward is closer integration with the EU so that they can emigrate and find jobs and perhaps get some foreign investment. Both "solutions" are an illusion. It is high time that a class based solution was presented to Ukrainian working people, rooted in the struggle against reactionary nationalism on both sides and against the reactionary oligarchic crooks who are using nationalism to advance their own private money grabbing interests.