The battle over Ukraine intensifies

March 19, 2014

Alan Maass reports on the latest stage of a crisis that could tear Ukraine apart.

RUSSIA HAS absorbed Crimea and the strategic port city of Sevastopol following the victory of a referendum last weekend for Crimea to secede from Ukraine--escalating the superpower conflict between Russia and the U.S. government and its European allies over the future of Ukraine.

Vladimir Putin's triumphant speech Wednesday in front of the upper house of Russia's parliament ended with him and Sergey Aksyonov--who was declared prime minister of Crimea after an armed takeover of the provincial parliament at the end of February--signing documents to make the territory's annexation to Russia "official."

This was the culmination of Putin's imperialist counter-move after the downfall of ex-Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych in February. Yanukovych fled the capital amid deadly street battles between his regime's riot police and armed fighters defending a mass protest movement occupying the Maidan (Independence Square) in central Kiev.

The Maidan uprising began in November as a rebellion against the corruption and repression of Yanukovych's kleptocratic regime and against Russia, which has dominated Ukraine in different forms for most of the last three centuries. But a collection of center-right and far-right parties, with a nationalist agenda and backing from Western governments, succeeded in maintaining leadership over the movement. This is who came to power after Yanukovych fled.

Lined up to vote in Crimea's referendum on secession
Lined up to vote in Crimea's referendum on secession

Thus, in addition to disbanding the riot police, one of the first acts of the new parliament--on the initiative of the far-right Svoboda party, which has several representatives in the cabinet--was to overturn a law allowing languages other than Ukrainian to be used officially. Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk appealed to the U.S. and European Union (EU) governments for help, along with the International Monetary Fund (IMF)--his conservative Fatherland party is committed to meeting the harsh austerity conditions of the IMF.

In defending the military takeover of Crimea in southern Ukraine at the end of February, and the territory's subsequent referendum and annexation to Russia, Putin claims to be taking a stand against the "fascists from Maidan" in defense of the democratic rights of ethnic Russians and other minorities in Ukraine fearful of the ultra-nationalists.

This is sheer hypocrisy. In Russia, Putin has collaborated with the far-right political figure Vladimir Zhirinovsky, vice chairman of the lower house of parliament for the last 14 years, in maintaining his grip. As Putin rose to power, first as prime minister under Boris Yeltsin and then as president himself, he carried out a war of genocidal ferocity against Chechnya, along with other rebellious republics--leaving the blood of hundreds of thousands of people on his hands.

But there is more than enough hypocrisy to go around in this intensifying conflict.

The ultra-nationalists now in charge in Kiev say they will root out corruption and look out for ordinary people--as long as they speak Ukrainian, that is. But they are tied to the super-rich oligarchs who have ruled the economy, no matter which political faction was in charge. Likewise, the sanctimonious outrage of U.S. officials at Putin's "violation of international law" masks their own geopolitical designs in Ukraine--to increase the economic and military reach of the U.S. and Europe at the expense of their imperial rival.

The stage is set for weeks and months of conflict to come, with the threat of escalating violence hanging over Ukraine. Neither the U.S. nor Russia necessarily wants a war, but with tensions ratcheted up on all sides, bloodshed may come anyway.

RUSSIAN IMPERIALISM has a lot at stake in Ukraine, the largest country on its Western border. Russia's biggest market for natural gas, its main export, is Western Europe--the pipelines linking suppliers and customers crisscross Ukraine. After decades of investment, the industrial economy of eastern Ukraine is closely integrated with Russia's.

The Russian government also wants to resist the eastward expansion of the U.S.-led NATO military alliance that began with the collapse of the ex-USSR's empire in Eastern Europe. In fact, Yanukovych's government was already cooperating with NATO, but the new regime in Kiev represents even more of a threat.

Crimea--a peninsula that extends into the Black Sea from southern Ukraine--is especially important to Russia because of the military dimension. In his speech to parliament, Putin claimed that "[i]n the hearts and minds of people, Crimea has always been and remains an inseparable part of Russia"--which will come as a surprise to Crimea's Tatar population, a Turkic Muslim people who were deported en masse to Central Asia by the Stalinist regime in the ex-USSR during the Second World War, and only allowed to return to Crimea in the 1980s.

Much more important to Putin than the "hearts and minds" of the people of Crimea is Russia's massive base in Sevastopol, which provides the Russian Navy with access to the Mediterranean Sea. The Russian takeover of Crimea in late February was accomplished as easily as it was because Russian military forces already stationed there far outnumbered the units commanded by the Ukraine government.

Putin is playing the nationalist card himself in whipping up support for the Ukraine intervention within Russia. For example, he told the parliament that the experience of ethnic Russians in Crimea when the ex-USSR broke apart in 1991 was similar to "[m]illions of Russians [who] went to sleep in one country and woke up living abroad, as a national minority in former republics of the union. The Russian people became one of the biggest, if not the biggest, split-up nation in the world."

In reality, one important factor in the collapse of the Stalinist system in the USSR was the rise of independence movements in Ukraine and other former colonial possessions of the Tsarist empire that were re-subjugated when the Stalin's victorious counterrevolution reversed the gains of the 1917 revolution. Defending ethnic Russians has been a regular theme of the propaganda campaign to justify Moscow's attempts--some more successful than others--to regain a dominating position in the former republics.

Pro-Russian forces are mobilizing in major cities in eastern Ukraine. For example, several people died in clashes in Donetsk last week, which began when pro-Russian demonstrators took over a government building and demanded the release of a former official imprisoned by authorities loyal to the Kiev government. The violence has fueled fears that a secession movement will spread beyond Crimea--and with it, the Russian military intervention.

The Russian government may not be so eager for a showdown, however. Though eastern cities are the base of the pro-Russian political forces in Ukraine, most people in the rural areas surrounding them are Ukrainian speakers. In general, there is deep-seated suspicion of Russia, even in the east--the product of Moscow's abuses and war crimes committed in the past. This suspicion will continue, alongside justified fears about the right-wingers and outright fascists who have taken charge in Kiev.

Within Russia, Putin does face resistance. Last Saturday, an antiwar demonstration in Moscow drew an unexpectedly large crowd--estimates of the turnout for the protest that filled the length of Sakharov Prospekt ranged as high as 70,000.

The opposition to Putin has a long way to go before the Russian president's grip is loosened--and it is far from consistently left wing. But the antiwar protest was a refreshing alternative to the crowds of Putin supporters celebrating Crimea's referendum--and to the disappointing position taken by some left groups in the U.S. and Europe to defend Russia's role in Crimea.

FOR THEIR part, the U.S. and European governments' response to the Crimea annexation has been more bark than bite so far.

Political leaders announced economic sanctions, aimed especially at Russian business figures and firms with interests in Ukraine. But the scope of the sanctions are limited because of the EU's dependence on natural gas from Russia--in some EU countries, 100 percent of gas imports come from Russia, via Ukraine.

Still, the U.S. government is using the opportunity to show some military muscle of its own. Vice President Joe Biden traveled to Poland's capital of Warsaw to meet with officials from the Polish government, as well as leaders of the three former Baltic republics of the USSR, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. All four countries are members of NATO, and Biden is promising the military alliance will protect them from Russia's "blatant, blatant disregard of international law."

According to the Guardian, Biden delivered the news that Poland would be getting a dozen new F-16 warplanes. "You have an ally whose budget is larger than the next 10 nations in the world combined, so don't worry about where we are," he reportedly told the Polish president.

Meanwhile, the new Ukraine government is issuing war threats of its own. The day after the Crimea referendum, officials announced that they were calling up 20,000 reservists for the Ukraine military and would create a new 20,000-strong "national guard" force--yet another possible spark that could set off the powder keg.

Whether or not the conflict escalates into further military confrontations, one thing is certain: Right-wing political forces will exploit the threat of Russian military intervention to promote their nationalist agenda.

State repression will be carried out with the claim that it is a necessary response to the threat of foreign domination. Likewise, the government has the perfect cover to accept the economic blackmail of the IMF--Ukraine has no choice but to impose austerity, the argument will go, in order to obtain the loans necessary after Russia withdrew its aid.

According to left-wing economist Jack Rasmus, the IMF-EU bailout deal due to be announced on March 21 is assumed to include the usual conditions like cuts in government jobs and spending, pension "reform" and elimination of subsidies for consumer goods, including natural gas for heating. And that's for a "rescue" totaling $15 billion--which won't even cover a third of what Ukraine will need to survive the crisis, says Rasmus.

For the time being, the polarization caused by competing nationalisms--Ukraine versus Russian--is likely to crowd out any voices raising the issues of corruption, repression and social inequality, which underlay the Maidan movement. But as further austerity measures hit home, along with the authoritarian policies of the nationalist politicians, the illusions that the new regime is committed to real change, rather than a reordering of the oligarch-dominated status quo, will start to crack.

Likewise, in the east, pro-Russian political forces are no more concerned about challenging poverty and inequality than the pro-Ukraine ones--and Russia's military intervention, whatever form it takes from here, certainly won't bring about a flowering of democracy.

The hope for Ukraine's future depends on an independent left alternative arising to challenge all national chauvinism and the economic power of oligarchs of every faction. It may take time for such an alternative to develop, but in the meanwhile, the left--inside Ukraine and outside it--must be clear that we don't side with either Russia or the U.S., with either the right-wing nationalists ruling in Kiev or the pro-Russian autocrats in charge in Crimea.

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