The threat of war hangs over Ukraine

March 3, 2014

Alan Maass and Lee Sustar provide the background for understanding Russia's military intervention in Ukraine--and inter-imperialist rivalries that are coming to a head.

RUSSIAN FORCES seized military control of the Crimean Peninsula in southern Ukraine, threatening a war that could tear Ukraine apart--and escalating the global superpower conflict between Russia and the U.S.

The takeover of Crimea was Russian leader Vladimir Putin's stakes-raising counter to the downfall of Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych, the corrupt strongman who fled the capital of Kiev on February 21 amid deadly battles between his regime's riot police and fighters defending the popular uprising centered in Kiev's Maidan (Independence Square) since November.

The Maidan movement's triumph in toppling Yanukovych left Ukraine's government in the hands of conservative and far-right parties enthusiastically championed by the U.S. and Europe, which hope to benefit politically and economically at Russia's expense. Faced with the prospect of losing power in the largest country on Russia's western border and an integral component of its economic empire, Putin made his move.

On Friday--with the takeover of Crimea well underway and Yanukovych appearing at a press conference in Russia to claim he is still Ukraine's "current president"--Russia's parliament gave Putin broad authority to use military force, anywhere in Ukraine for an indefinite period of time. This is an open-ended threat of war against a country of 46 million people formerly under Moscow's rule until the breakup of the ex-USSR in 1991 and the Tsarist empire before that.

Russian troops on the ground during the takeover of Crimea in Ukraine
Russian troops on the ground during the takeover of Crimea in Ukraine

In attempting to bully Ukraine into submission, the Russian leader is playing a familiar role. The Maidan occupation was, in fact, sparked by anger at Yanukovych's decision, under pressure from Russia, to abandon plans to sign an agreement for greater cooperation with the European Union (EU) in favor of a trade alliance led by Russia.

Hostility to Russia's historic power over Ukraine was a driving factor throughout the protests. But other issues also came to the fore, including demands for genuine democratic institutions and opposition to the widespread corruption endemic to every faction of Ukraine's elite, pro-Russian or not. The mass protest movement was a volatile uprising from below, not easily controlled by the pro-Western parties that claimed to lead it, nor the far-right organizations with a high profile among the Maidan occupiers.

Even as Yanukovych attempted a series of crackdowns against the Maidan, Putin and Russia tried to lure the mainstream opposition parties away from deals with the West and into a power-sharing agreement, with the promise of continued Russian aid. But the carrot-backed-up-by-the-stick approach, tentatively accepted by opposition leaders, broke down when the Yanukovych regime collapsed.

Now Russia is going with the stick alone--raising the specter of an all-out war if the Ukraine government breaks with Russia. Even if the Russian intervention is contained to Crimea and armed conflict doesn't break out elsewhere--a big if, given the high level of tensions--putting the peninsula under de facto Russian rule will give Moscow enormous leverage over the Ukrainian government.

IN TYPICALLY hypocritical fashion, U.S. and European political leaders denounced Russia--led by Barack Obama, who decried the "breach of international law" and "violation" of Ukraine's sovereignty.

This from the leader of a country that has invaded and occupied whole countries many times before, with Afghanistan and Iraq only the latest victims. Obama commands a military that is waging undeclared wars, using drone aircraft and covert forces, around the Middle East and beyond, and he heads a government that has instigated coups and encouraged deadly violence in any country in America's so-called "backyard" of Latin America where Washington's dominance is threatened.

The posturing of U.S. and European leaders has nothing to do with concern about democracy or Ukraine's right to self-determination. Last year's offer of greater EU cooperation was part of a longstanding strategy of bringing the former republics of the USSR into the U.S.-Europe orbit--with a military component of expanding U.S.-led NATO to the borders of Russia itself.

When Yanukovych's decision to spurn the EU sparked the Maidan movement, Western governments suddenly rediscovered their enthusiasm for the mass occupation of squares and public spaces--unlike when they took place in Madrid, Athens or Zuccotti Park. A parade of U.S. and EU politicians showed up in Kiev to meet with leaders of the conservative opposition parties--Republican Sen. John McCain got his picture taken with the freedom-loving leader of the far-right Svoboda, which has links to France's National Front.

Now, Obama and other Western leaders are threatening various measures to punish Russia--and in Ukraine, the interim president has put the country's armed forces on high alert.

IN A straight-up military confrontation with Ukraine, Russia has the advantage, of course.

It was able to carry out the takeover of Crimea without opposition because of its already overwhelming presence--the Russian naval base in Sevastopol, at the southwestern tip of Crimea, was home to an estimated 26,000 Russian military personnel. Ukraine's military had only a token force in Crimea--these troops were blockaded on their bases or stopped from going to their own naval installation.

Crimea is apparently attracting remnants of the old regime fleeing Kiev--for example, the riot police that inflicted a deadly toll on the Maidan during Yanukovych's last desperate crackdown. The head of the Ukraine military appointed in Yanukovych's final days apparently defected in Crimea, too, pledging his allegiance to Sergei Aksyonov, the prime minister of the republic of Crimea, a pro-Russia figure who declared he was in control of military and police forces in the region. Aksyonov claims there will be a referendum on independence held on March 30.

The base of support for Yanukovych and his one-time ruling Party of Regions extends beyond Crimea to the southern and eastern regions of Ukraine. The country's industrial heartland is located in the East, and the economy is more integrated with Russia's. Pro-Russian demonstrations have been taking place in major eastern cities, and they intensified over the weekend--in Kharkiv, for example, protesters took over a government building, pulled down the blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flag and raised the blue-white-and-red Russian flag.

But Russia won't be able to expand its military intervention beyond Crimea, even in the East, without facing significant resistance. Military analysts predicted to the New York Times that an escalation would hold big risks for Russian forces--including the possibility of significant casualties in any battle with Ukrainian forces, which would be backed up by self-defense militias and partisans.

The social reality of Ukraine is more complex than the media depiction of a North and West that lean toward Europe and an East and South that lean toward Russia. For example, while the eastern cities are clearly a stronghold of pro-Russian political forces, the surrounding areas are mostly Ukrainian speaking. Moreover, language preferences aren't a simple guide to political allegiance.

The situation in Crimea is complicated, too. Besides ethnic Ukrainians, there are the Tatars, a Muslim Turkic people who were deported from the peninsula by Stalin during the Second World War and only allowed to return some four decades later. The Tatars are thus especially determined to avoid rule by Moscow.

In an interview before Yanukovych's downfall, Russian socialist Ilya Budraitskis estimated that if there was a fair vote on whether Ukraine should unify with Russia, "[e]ven in the East, most people would vote no. They don't trust the Russian government."

The situation has become more polarized, however. Russia's war threats have raised the specter of a partitioned Ukraine--but so have the actions of the right-wing parties leading the new government in Kiev, with their support for imposing Ukrainian as the official language throughout the country. With hostilities ratcheted up on all sides, the possibility of political and military skirmishes escalating into bigger battles--and outright warfare--is still high.

OVERLAYING THE tense situation within Ukraine itself is the re-run of the Cold War confrontation playing out between Russia and the U.S.--which both treat Ukraine as a prize to be exploited for its economic usefulness and geopolitical importance, not as if either cares about democracy, national sovereignty or the well-being of the people of Ukraine.

Russia has ruled most of Ukraine since the 17th century. After the overthrow of the Tsarist regime during the Russian Revolution of 1917, Ukraine, caught in the midst of a civil war between revolutionary and counterrevolutionary forces, ultimately joined the newly formed Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in 1922.

But the counterrevolution of Stalinism exacted a savage toll. In the late 1920s and 1930s, Ukraine suffered horribly under the forced collectivization of agriculture--famine caused the death of millions. Stalin gained control of Western Ukraine in 1939 after an agreement with Adolf Hitler to divide Eastern Europe among themselves.

The economic and military factors that make Ukraine so important to Putin and Russia's rulers today were forged in this era of Stalinism. Russia has enormous investment in Ukraine's industry and agriculture, and natural gas pipelines running through Ukraine link Russian energy producers to their major markets in Western Europe.

The naval base in Sevastopol provides Russia with access to the Mediterranean Sea, which is important to projecting the Putin regime as world military power. The lease on the base was due to expire in 2017--until the Yanukovych regime negotiated an extension for another 25 years, in exchange for discounts on natural gas imports to Ukraine.

Like the other republics of the ex-USSR, Ukraine declared independence amid the crackup of the Stalinist system in 1991. But from the start, the "new" Ukraine was run by a narrow grouping of old Communist Party bosses and new billionaires who made fortunes through insider connections that allowed them to buy up privatized state enterprises.

The first two presidents of Ukraine, Leonid Kravchuk and Leonid Kuchma, were both creatures of the Stalinist bureaucracy who only began to criticize the one-party dictatorship when the end of the USSR was in sight. Yanukovych rose to prominence as the last of six prime ministers under Kuchma. Meanwhile, the gap between the mass of ordinary people and the tiny elite of wealthy oligarchs that benefited from "independent" Ukraine only grew more massive.

In 2004, popular resentment about the stagnant economy, political corruption and Russia's continued domination boiled over in mass protests against election fraud when Yanukovych, as Kuchma's anointed successor, claimed victory as the next president. This so-called "Orange Revolution" forced Yanukovych to submit to a rerun election that brought rival Viktor Yushchenko to office.

The neocons of the George W. Bush White House, then in power in Washington, eagerly hyped the Orange Revolution as a blow to Russia that would allow NATO to continue expansion across the USSR's former Eastern European empire, right to the border of Russia itself. But Yushchenko quickly disappointed those who thought he would go beyond confronting his political rivals and challenge the oligarchs who enriched themselves while the economy stagnated, or the corrupt system that serves the country's elite.

Russia, meanwhile, countered Washington's bid to gain influence in Ukraine by bullying the new government over vital supplies of oil and gas. It also relied on backroom deals with Ukraine's oligarchs, including those connected to the Orange Revolution.

Case in point: Yulia Tymoshenko, whose release from prison during Yanukovych's final days was celebrated by the Western media as a victory for freedom and democracy. Tymoshenko has a shadier past than the media let on. She became an oligarch herself during the privatization bonanza after independence and was a close ally of Yushchenko in 2004, but broke with him within two years. Moreover, she made a deal with Putin over Ukraine's natural gas imports that many saw as benefiting Russia.

With the Orange Revolution discredited, Yanukovych made a political comeback to win the 2010 elections. But just as Tymoshenko's polices were far from the nationalist agenda she and Yushchenko claimed to represent, Yanukovych, the supposed puppet of Moscow, eagerly looked to the West for economic help soon after taking office. A European think-tank writer wrote in the Wall Street Journal that Yanukovych's plans for neoliberal economic reform were "truly transformational." Yanukovych also continued the Ukraine military's collaboration with the NATO alliance.

SO WHY was Yanukovych willing to make a U-turn and abandon the agreement for greater EU cooperation last November in favor of a deal with Putin? The answer is that he represented a Ukraine ruling class that must navigate between the major imperialist powers in order to maintain their class rule.

According to journalist Mark Ames, formerly based in Moscow:

Yanukovych represents one faction of oligarchs; the opposition, unwittingly or otherwise, ultimately fronts for other factions. Many of those oligarchs have close business ties with Russia, but assets and bank accounts--and mansions--in Europe. Both forces are happy to work with the neoliberal global institutions.

As Ames makes clear, the leaders of the opposition to Yanukovych--those now in power in Kiev--are every bit as complicit in the corrupt system presided over by the oligarchs, with all their factions and rival political allegiances. The popular uprising of the Maidan gave them the chance to pose as champions of democracy--but they are anything but, and they are already showing as much.

For example, until Russia's intervention in Crimea, the first order of business for new Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk was pursuing a financial bailout to replace the aid withdrawn by Russia. That means going to the International Monetary Fund, which will demand the usual austerity measures as a condition of making any loans.

In other words, as an alternative to continued subservience to Moscow, the new rulers of Ukraine are offering a future of subordination to European economic interests instead. Promises of prosperity are an illusion--as the populations of Greece, Spain and other countries hit by the eurozone crisis know well.

Yatsenyuk is a leader of the Fatherland party, along with Yulia Tymoshenko, among others. Their corruption was laid bare in the years after the Orange Revolution--for them to now claim leadership of a movement demanding democracy and improved livelihoods for ordinary people in Ukraine stinks of hypocrisy.

The stench gets worse when you look at the connections of the new rulers of Ukraine to the far right. As one of his last acts as president, Viktor Yushchenko honored as a "Hero of Ukraine" Stepan Bandera, a collaborator with the Nazis during the Second World War, responsible for carrying out the Nazi genocide against Jews and the mass murder of Poles who resisted ethnic cleansing in Western Ukraine.

This enthusiastic embrace of ultra-nationalism by mainstream parties set the stage for the development of those even further to the right--like Svoboda (Freedom), with its ties to the European far right. In parliamentary elections in 2012, Svoboda won 10.4 percent of the popular vote and the fourth-largest number of seats among national political parties.

Within the mass mobilization of the Maidan movement, the far right had a very high profile--particularly among those who defended the occupation from police attack. These self-defense units were reportedly controlled by the Right Sector, an extra-parliamentary grouping with a disciplined command structure and explicitly fascist ideology.

THE PROMINENCE of right-wingers on the speakers' platform and of the far right among the protesters led some on the left to dismiss the Maidan movement entirely. But the so-called "leaders" of the Maidan among the opposition parties found it increasingly difficult to control the uprising. For example, Vitali Klitschko, another opposition leader, was booed in a speech at the occupation after a power-sharing arrangement was announced that would have kept Yanukovych in office.

As for the presence of the Right Sector and other far-right forces, the Russian Socialist Movement's Ilya Budraitskis, in his interview with the German magazine Marx21, insisted that the left had a duty, though a difficult one, to engage with the Maidan movement:

[The Right Sector is] trying to establish their dominance over the mass movement. But so far, fortunately, they haven't succeeded--because the core of the movement doesn't have anything to do with fascism...

[The Maidan movement] comes from a post-Soviet society which has been robbed of class-consciousness and has no tradition of protest. So movements can take on very different forms--and change their character particularly quickly, moving to the left or to the right...The main thing is that a large majority of protesters are politically active for the first time--and they are now holding the Maidan against brutal battalions of police. Some 300,000 people took part in the biggest demonstrations in Kiev. The vast majority of them don't have anything to do with the extreme right.

The threat of outright war--and the certainty of an ongoing crisis that could lead to the partition, literally or in effect, of the country--will only make it harder to challenge the right, which can use the ongoing conflict with Russia to pose as nationalist defenders of Ukraine, even as they spew their hate.

Whatever happens now, though, the left--inside Ukraine and outside it--must be clear: Ukraine has the right of self-determination, which means the right to be free of domination by Russia and also by the West. In the inter-imperialist rivalry between Russia and the U.S.--just as with the previous conflict within Ukraine between the Yanukovych regime and the center-right and far-right parties of the opposition--both sides represent exploitation and repression.

The interests of working people in Ukraine won't be served by the country's continued subservience to Russia's oligarchs--nor to have it reduced to another European vassal state, with vicious austerity inflicted in the interests of the bankers. The former forces of the Yanukovych regime, potentially regrouped behind Russian military might, are no more benevolent than the far-right forces who hope to dominate after the role they played in the Maidan movement.

Putin's military intervention in Ukraine is a naked power play--the latest in a long list of Russian imperialist adventures. But the corrupt, right-wing parties now in charge of the Ukraine government will try to use the seizure of Crimea to further whip up nationalism--while failing to offer a genuine alternative that speaks to working people's needs.

As long as the political alternatives remain confined to one or the other of two oppressors--whether within Ukraine or beyond it--the people of the Ukraine will remain subjugated.

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