Ukraine spirals toward chaos

Alan Maass reports on the latest eruptions of violence as civil war looms in Ukraine.

Ukraine army forces carry out operations in the east of the countryUkraine army forces carry out operations in the east of the country

THE DEATH toll is rising in Ukraine amid an intensifying conflict between the central government, dominated by right-wing parties and backed by the U.S. and Europe, and separatist forces in the east and south of the country, supported by Russia.

The Ukraine military is carrying out operations in the eastern part of the country against pro-Russian insurgents who have seized government buildings in more than a dozen cities since early April, taking effective control from local government officials and police that were loyal to Kiev, and collaborating with those sympathetic to the rebellion.

The skirmishes have been sporadic, but increasingly deadly, with casualties on both sides among the armed forces, as well as a growing number of non-combatants. The Interior Ministry in Kiev claims to have achieved some of its military objectives, including retaking a captured television tower, but the insurgents remain in control of several major cities and have established defensive positions that will make an assault difficult.

Last week, the violence spread to the southern city of Odessa, where 42 people, mostly from the pro-Russian side, were killed on May 2. A clash between rival demonstrations turned into armed street battles--later, a trade union headquarters building where pro-Russian protesters had retreated was set on fire, causing dozens of deaths. The next day, a furious crowd marched on the local jail where they pressured authorities to release 67 pro-Russian demonstrators arrested the previous day.

The bloodshed and destruction could grow far worse as the conflict within Ukraine becomes more and more polarized. But rather than try to defuse this civil war in the making, the imperial powers that loom behind the violence--Russia on one side, and the U.S. and Europe on the other--are cynically ramping up the tensions instead.

As the former Cold War rivals battle for advantage, the people of Ukraine will pay the price in blood and suffering.

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THE DYNAMIC of polarization has hardened support for nationalism on both sides.

In Kiev, the central government, urged on by the U.S. and its European allies, has been attempting to assert its authority since it came to power following the downfall of former President Viktor Yanukovych in February. The government is led by Ukraine nationalist parties, ranging from center right to far right, that want to build closer ties with the European Union (EU).

These parties claimed from the start to lead the mass protest movement--based in Kiev's central square, the Maidan--that arose late last year after Yanukovych, despite his history of trying to balance between Europe and Russia, rejected an "association agreement" with the EU and tilted toward a deal offered by Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

The Maidan movement may have been sparked by pro-EU sentiments, but it was sustained by bitter grievances against the regime's police-state repression and Yanukovych's kleptocratic rule--his corruption and looting probably made him a billionaire before he was toppled. The regime's attempts to break up the protests with increasingly deadly police assaults only stiffened support for the Maidan, not only in western Ukraine, where the nationalist parties have their base, but in the east, with its close economic ties to Russia and bigger concentration of Russian speakers.

However, when Yanukovych fled Kiev in mid-February, the nationalist parties took charge, with an agenda that was certain to alienate whatever echoes of support for the Maidan that remained in the east.

One of parliament's first acts after Yanukovych's downfall was to try to overturn a ban on Russian being used as an official language anywhere in Ukraine. Plus, the government's attempt to reach a deal with the EU and International Monetary Fund, on the condition that it impose strict neoliberal measures, promised even greater hardship for the country's industrial heartland in the East.

Russia made its move to counter its imperial rivals' gains in Kiev with a military takeover of Crimea, a peninsula on the southern edge of Ukraine--followed by a quickly organized referendum on secession and annexation to Moscow. Putin's regime could rely on support because of legitimate fears of the ultra-nationalists and far right now running the government in Kiev.

Today, with the central government intensifying its military operations against the pro-Russian forces in eastern cities, the same process is at work. Every casualty from the fighting--not to mention every pronouncement about the "terrorists" of the east from a Kiev government taking a page from its backers in Washington, D.C.--fuels bitterness toward the central government.

Thus, in Kramatorsk, at a vigil for a young woman shot by Ukraine security forces while she was providing first aid to victims of a skirmish, a resident named Anna spoke in anger to a Financial Times reporter: "It is a crime to shoot at your own people. They call us terrorists, separatists. Look at us. Do I look like a terrorist?"

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RUSSIA'S SUPPORT for the takeovers in eastern cities isn't as blatant as the operation in Crimea, where it already had a substantial military presence because of its massive naval base on the Black Sea. But there's definitely collaboration with Moscow taking place.

During the initial building seizures a month ago, residents of cities like Slavyansk--where the fighting is currently concentrated--told reporters they didn't recognize the insurgents who took over in the name of the "Donetsk People's Republic." Some of the armed men admitted they had traveled from Crimea to take part in the rebellion.

Many of the insurgents express the same toxic mix of bigotry, nationalistic zeal and worship of authority that Putin and his regime promote--like Sergey Samoshkin, who participated in occupations of government buildings in Donetsk. "There's no democracy in Europe," he told the Observer. "I've been to Germany. They give porno lessons in schools. It's homosexual fascism. They impose their values on others."

But the takeovers and eastern cities have a broader base of support. Many people people admit they fear domination by Russia--but they fear the threat posed by the new government in Kiev even more. For example, insurgents interviewed by the New York Times cited the parliamentary proposal after Yanukovych was toppled "that would have stripped Russian of its status as an official language in eastern Ukraine. The proposal was vetoed by the interim president, but in the fighters' view, the episode signaled an official cultural assault. 'That was a turning point,' said [one of the insurgents]."

Another factor is the close economic and cultural ties of eastern Ukraine to Russia. Until the collapse of the former USSR in 1991 and Ukraine's declaration of independence, residents lived under the rule of Moscow. The Times interviewed one leader of a pro-Russian militia in Donetsk who was a Ukraine native, but gained his position because of his experience in the USSR army, as a veteran of the occupation of Afghanistan.

Among the insurgents, there are a variety of political views. Some do support secession from Ukraine and annexation to Russia, like in Crimea. But others argue just as forcefully that they want to remain within Ukraine, but with greater autonomy.

Whatever the case, it's clear that Putin is exploiting the rebellion in the east to advance his battle for influence in Ukraine, a country that Russia has dominated for centuries in various forms.

The takeover of Crimea was critical, both to safeguard Russia's military assets on the peninsula, including the Black Sea naval base, and to send a message that Moscow would protect its economic interests in Ukraine, including a network of pipelines that gives Russia's natural gas producers access to their chief export market in Western Europe.

It seems unlikely that Putin wants military intervention on a similar scale in eastern Ukraine, where the difficulties of maintaining an occupation would be far greater. But the rebellions are certainly serving Moscow's purpose in destabilizing post-Yanukovych Ukraine. If they continue until the end of the month, they will disrupt the central government's plan for a presidential election on May 25, which the new regime hoped would give its rule greater legitimacy.

In fact, the Donetsk People's Republic has announced its own vote, set for this coming Sunday, May 11, on a referendum. It's unclear how widespread voting can be in cities dotted with barricades to repel attacks by the Ukraine Army--much less in rural areas where there is no sign of the insurgents' control. In addition, no one seems sure whether the language of the referendum will call for secession, as a prelude to annexation by Russia, or simply greater autonomy.

All these developments will only add to the chaos--leaving working people caught in the middle as rival nationalist forces fight it out, with even more powerful imperial powers looming behind them.