The toll rises in Ukraine’s civil war

September 2, 2014

Alan Maass explains the backdrop to the latest stage of the war over eastern Ukraine.

DESTRUCTION AND death are stalking eastern Ukraine, with the threat of worse to come, as fighting intensified between pro-Russian rebel forces and Army units commanded by the right-wing government in Kiev, following a rebel counter-offensive last week.

U.S. political leaders, echoed by the mainstream media, claim Russia is carrying out an "invasion" across its border into eastern Ukraine, the site of a civil war since last spring when insurgents rebelled against the authority of the U.S.-backed central government.

There have been many allegations--though little evidence--about the official Russian military directly carrying out artillery barrages and participating in the ground offensive.

What is certain is that the tide has turned against Ukraine Army forces since last week. Even if Russian soldiers weren't operating them, the tanks and heavy weapons supporting the rebel offensive likely did come from Russia, despite the denials in Moscow. Rebel claims that they are using equipment captured from the Ukraine Army ring false considering their side lost so much ground to government forces in fighting during the past few months.

Fighting is intensifying in the eastern region of Ukraine

Plus, the rebel challenge has now spread south from the original base of the uprising in Donetsk and Luhansk provinces, threatening the port city of Mariupol on the Azov Sea. It's unclear how the insurgents, after suffering a series of military defeats, could have opened up a new front in the civil war--one closer to the Crimea Peninsula, which Russia annexed earlier this year--without substantial help.

THE INSURGENTS' offensive is definitely supported by Russia, in rhetoric and materially. But the U.S. government and its propagandists in the media are silent about their own responsibility for violence and repression by the Kiev government, led by right-wing nationalist parties--including a series of provocations in the days and weeks preceding the counter-attack.

The Ukraine Army's offensive to regain control of eastern Ukraine began late last spring, but grew in intensity over the summer. Around three-quarters of the territory once claimed by the rebels had been re-conquered before last week.

Plus, with a summit of the U.S.-led NATO military alliance due to take place this coming week, Western officials bragged about their intention to set up operations in Ukraine--and Ukraine political leaders, more and more confident that they were regaining the upper hand in the east, chimed in with their support.

It was inevitable that this aggressive rhetoric, combined with the military threat to rebel forces it supports, would bring a response from Vladimir Putin's Russia.

Thus, looming behind the civil war being fought out in Ukraine is a superpower conflict over imperial dominance, pitting the U.S. and its European allies against Russia.

The U.S. and European Union immediately pledged their support for the right-wing nationalists who came to power in Ukraine after the rebellion against former President Viktor Yanukovych last February. Washington is encouraging the new regime to establish economic and military ties with Europe to further isolate Russia in a region that has been part of Moscow's empire, formally and informally, for many decades.

Putin's Russia, on the other hand, has been trying to stop the largest country on its western border from becoming a hostile state, operating economically and militarily in alliance with its superpower enemy. Thus, Russia engineered the takeover of the Crimean Peninsula in the aftermath of Yanukovych's downfall, leading to its secession from Ukraine and annexation to Russia--and it has encouraged the armed uprising in eastern Ukraine.

This sequel to the old Cold War rivalry is inflicting growing suffering. The United Nations estimated at the end of August that some 2,600 people have died since fighting began in eastern Ukraine in April--and given the lack of reliable information, that figure probably understates civilian casualties.

Around half of the deaths have come in the past month and a half, with the intensification of the government's offensive, and now the rebel counter-attack. The death toll is approaching the daily rate during Israel's war on Gaza this summer, though the bloodshed has not been one-sided, as in Gaza.

Close to 350,000 people have fled their homes in the east--nearly 200,000 of them across the border into Russia, and more than 150,000 elsewhere in Ukraine, according to estimates.

Before the uprising and civil war, the economy of the area was suffering long-term stagnation, made worse by austerity measures carried out over many years by the central government, regardless of whether its rulers were pro-West or pro-Russian. The civil war will deal an even worse blow--and the reverberations will be felt across the country.

ACCORDING TO the U.S. government's version, disseminated almost without question in the mainstream media, all of this is Russia's fault.

In a White House briefing for reporters, Barack Obama declared: "The violence is encouraged by Russia. The separatists are trained by Russia, they are armed by Russia, they are funded by Russia. Russia has deliberately and repeatedly violated the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine."

First, the hypocrisy of such statements--coming from a commander-in-chief who orders air strikes on Iraq; presides over the occupation of Afghanistan; sanctions assassination-by-drone in Pakistan, Yemen and beyond; continues to supply America's terrorist ally Israel with the weapons to annihilate Gaza; and authorizes covert warfare in various forms against elected governments in Venezuela, Iran and Honduras, to name but a few--is hard to stomach.

But more to the point, the U.S. is also to blame for encouraging violence in eastern Ukraine--the violence of the Kiev government as it seeks to impose its authority.

While Putin's Russia is certainly attempting to advance its own agenda by supporting the rebels, there are legitimate grievances involved in the uprising. People in the east rightly fear the nationalism of the new regime that came to power after Yanukovych--including far-right parties, openly connected to European fascists.

That nationalism is symbolized, for example, by efforts to revoke official status for languages other than Ukrainian--something obviously aimed at, among others, the Russian-speaking minority concentrated in the east. Plus, the already ailing industrial economy of the area would be decimated if Ukraine signs on with the European Union, with its requirements for strict austerity.

And, of course, the government's months-long offensive in the east--described by Kiev, taking a page from the U.S. government, as an "anti-terrorist" operation--has been every bit as destructive and repressive as any occupying force.

In July, the government exploited international outrage over the shooting down of a Malaysian Airlines plane--most likely a horrific blunder by rebel forces that had previously been successful in targeting Ukraine military aircraft--to escalate the assault. With every siege and indiscriminate bombardment to dislodge rebels from cities they controlled, the Ukraine Army stoked more bitterness and hardened opposition to the central government.

On top of that, Western military leaders--perhaps emboldened by the success of the government's war on the rebels--have been boasting louder than ever about their plans to expand the NATO alliance into Ukraine.

On the eve of a meeting last week between recently elected Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko and Vladimir Putin, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen--known to be a "hawk" against Russia and an advocate of quickly integrating Ukraine into the alliance--declared that the NATO summit in early September would "adopt what we call a readiness action plan with the aim to be able to act swiftly...

"In order to be able to provide...rapid reinforcements, you also need some reception facilities in host nations. So it will involve the pre-positioning of supplies, of equipment, preparation of infrastructure, bases, headquarters. The bottom line is you will, in the future, see a more visible NATO presence in the east."

Whatever intentions Putin and Poroshenko had for their meeting--and there is no reason to trust the motives of either--the possibility of progress toward an agreement was torpedoed. Rasmussen's comment amounted to a promise to build NATO bases, bristling with weapons and warplanes, in a country that until recently was the site of some of the most important installations of the Russian military.

Combined with the growing prospect of military defeat for the pro-Russian rebels, it's hard to think of something more certain to invite Russian military retaliation in Ukraine.

SOME VOICES on the left have focused so much on these provocations by Western imperialist governments and the regime in Kiev that they either skirt around the role played by Vladimir Putin and the Russian government or accept the Moscow propaganda that Russia is merely trying to protect the human rights of persecuted minorities in Ukraine.

This is one-sided, to say the least. There is no way to understand how events have played out in Ukraine without recognizing that Putin is most of all concerned with defending Russian imperial interests--economic, political and military--in a country that has been central to the empire created since the crackup of the former USSR in 1991, when Ukraine and other subjugated republics of the former Stalinist system declared independence.

Every move and counter-move by the Russian government is calculated on the basis of those concerns. Any rhetoric about democracy and peace is as cynical and dishonest as when it comes from the mouths of American political leaders.

The road to Yanukovych's downfall began when he announced late last year that the Ukraine government, under pressure from Moscow, was backing out of an agreement for closer political and economic ties with Europe, in favor of participation in an economic bloc led by Russia.

This was the initial spark for mass mobilizations in Kiev, centered in the main public square called the Maidan. But the protests took on a broader character, expressing popular discontent with the repression and corruption of the Yanukovych regime. It turned out that the president's thievery had made him and the ruling circle around him filthy rich--angering even sections of the country's oligarchy that has ruled Ukraine no matter which political faction is in power.

Yanukovych's attempts to crack down on the protests only produced more anger and determination. Echoes of support for the revolt in the capital were even heard in the east, where Yanukovych had his base--though the Maidan movement was always strongest in the west, with its history of right-wing Ukrainian nationalism. When his last attempt at repression failed and the capital descended into armed street battles, Yanukovych fled Kiev in the middle of the night.

But rather than a new government representing the aspirations of ordinary people, east and west, who sympathized with the Maidan, the right-wing nationalist parties that had maintained leadership during the mass protests took over in the Ukraine parliament. Representatives from Yanukovych's own Party of Regions defected to the other side. Far-right groups that led the defense of the Maidan movement against the regime's riot police were now represented in government.

TO PUTIN and the Russian elite, the new regime in Kiev--even if some of its leaders were former collaborators, or at least apparatchiks who had done business with Moscow in the past--was clearly intent on shifting Ukraine away from Russian domination, and toward domination on terms dictated by the European Union.

So Putin made his counter-move--first of all in Crimea, the peninsula in southern Ukraine that was the site of Russia's massive and strategically vital naval base at Sevastopol.

No one can seriously believe that the rapid military takeover of Crimea wasn't directly engineered by Russia--its military personnel merely changed out of their uniforms, if that. After a hastily organized referendum, leaders claiming to speak for Crimea--over the objections of the oppressed Tatar population--appeared in Moscow to stand alongside Putin and sign documents making Crimea's annexation to Russia official.

The uprising in the east began soon after, with armed insurgents taking over in a series of cities. The Russian presence wasn't as obvious as in Crimea--but neither was it absent.

Aleksandr Zakharchenko, the prime minister of the Donetsk People's Republic declared by the rebels--who took his new post last month after the previous prime minister, Alexander Borodai, a Russian citizen, stepped aside in favor of someone from Ukraine--admitted in late August that 3,000 to 4,000 of the armed insurgents were from Russia from the start of the uprising.

Many of them, according to Zakharchenko, were and are active military personnel who volunteered "to spend their holidays not on the beach but shoulder-to-shoulder with their brothers, fighting for the freedom of Donbass." That number represents a quarter to a third of the rebels' armed forces, roughly similar to estimates in many media reports from eastern Ukraine.

Among the Russian "volunteers" is Igor Girkin, considered to be the commander-in-chief of rebel forces in Donetsk and Luhansk provinces. He is also a Russian citizen, who served in the Moscow government's barbaric campaigns against uprisings in Chechnya, among other assignments. Officially, he is no longer associated with the Russian military--having resigned only last year as a reserve colonel in the Federal Security Service, the post-USSR equivalent of the KGB.

Even among rebel fighters who are natives of the region, there is ample evidence that they share the reactionary attitudes and worship of authority and repression typical of Putin and the Russian political elite.

For example, one Guardian journalist who toured the headquarters of the Donetsk People's Republic reported numerous signs of allegiance to Moscow--including, for example, a poster showing a row of Russian soldiers and a European gay pride rally, with the headline: "In which parade would you want your son to take part?"-- alongside symbols of the era of high Stalinism in the former USSR.

Putin and his fellow rulers in Russia may deny, against all the evidence, any direct connection to the uprising in eastern Ukraine, just as they did in Crimea. But these are forces they can count on as allies, if not direct subordinates.

From the start, the rebels could a measure of support from the population outside their own ranks, as the threat of the right-wing government in Kiev became more and more pronounced. But there was also widespread suspicions about Russia--the product of many decades spent living under the rule of Moscow--even in eastern Ukraine, which is more closely integrated with Russia, economically and socially.

Ideologues among the rebels claim they are fighting for secession, but the goal for many is some form of autonomy, rather than annexation. According to reports, at talks convened this week in Belarus, involving representatives of the insurgents, the Ukraine government, and Russian and European officials, rebel leaders said they were seeking a "special status" that would give them control of security and sanction continued economic integration with Russia, whatever deals with the EU are signed by the Kiev regime.

But it's also true that the continuing violence and instability in Ukraine has caused polarization--and a hardening of support for the armed struggle.

The government in Kiev, along with its backers in Washington and European capitals, has done nothing to answer the fears of people in the east that they will be subjected to further political persecution and economic immiseration. On the contrary, each passing day and week adds to the reasons for ordinary people in the east to fear the new regime.

PUTIN ALMOST certainly does not want an actual invasion of eastern Ukraine. A Russian military occupation, followed by secession and annexation, would provoke local resistance--not to mention demand a strong response from the Ukraine government and the imperialist powers backing it up.

His goal is the same as it has been for months, since the takeover and annexation of Crimea: Undermine the legitimacy of the new regime in Kiev and keep it weak and hamstrung, unable to fully achieve its plans for closer integration--especially military integration--with Europe.

The success of the Kiev government's offensive against the rebels pushed Russia to sponsor the rebel counter-attack. According to the latest reports, that counter-assault has been broadly successful--not least because of reported defections and unrest among soldiers in the Ukraine Army, who are unwilling to sacrifice their lives for the regime that commands them.

But even if the insurgents, with all their backing from Russia, regain control over the territory lost during the summer, they won't be able to advance their political or military control much beyond this. The stage would be set for a new government offensive, once the Kiev regime can regroup.

The government can't afford to reach an agreement on autonomy in the east. The new president, Petro Poroshenko, is not from the extreme right wing of Ukrainian nationalism. As Canadian socialist David Mandel wrote, his record, as a part of governments perceived to be both pro-West and pro-Russian, proves he is "an inveterate political opportunist, who, like the rest of his class, subscribes to the Russian adage: 'Where my fortune lies, there lies my heart.'"

But Poroshenko probably couldn't survive if he made concessions on regional autonomy, especially in the face of a military victory for the Russian-backed rebels. So the stage is set for further polarization--and for the increasingly bloody conflict in eastern Ukraine to drag on.

The circumstances of civil war make it all the more difficult for any alternative to emerge--one that can challenge the rival forces within Ukraine itself, where right-wing and militaristic attitudes are rife among both sides fighting the war, as well as the rival imperialist powers backing the civil war.

But this much is clear--there is no solution by siding with Washington or with Moscow. The U.S. and Russia are the source of--not the solution to--the bloodshed and devastation wracking Ukraine today.

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