New lurch in the Russia-Ukraine conflict

December 6, 2018

Kate Seidel explains the backdrop to the seizure of three Ukrainian ships by Russian forces and introduces an analysis of the Ukraine government’s declaration of martial law by the Ukrainian organization Social Movement (Sotsial’nyy rukh).

RUSSIA’S FEDERAL Security Service (FSB) stopped and seized three Ukrainian navy ships on November 25 as they sailed near Crimea in the latest escalation of a conflict that reached fever pitch in 2014 when Russian forces seized and annexed the territory of Crimea from Ukraine.

The ships were traveling toward the Kerch Strait between the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, which are home to both Ukrainian and Russian port cities. Russia and Ukraine have a 2003 agreement allowing ships of both countries to pass though the Strait, but that deal is on the rocks since the seizure of Crimea, which gave Russia control of the land on both sides of the narrow strait.

The following week, Ukraine’s parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, approved President Petro Poroshenko’s decision — unprecedented in the four years since the conflict with Russia broke out into the open — to declare martial law in parts of the country.

Left: Petro Poroshenko; right: Vladimir Putin
Left: Petro Poroshenko; right: Vladimir Putin

The right-wing Poroshenko justified the decision as a response to Russia’s naval aggression, but many suspect it is a move to boost his abysmal ratings ahead of the presidential election next March — or set up the pretext to delay it completely.

Russian socialists have been challenging the Vladimir Putin government’s imperialist designs in the Ukraine throughout these last years.

Vladimir Plotnikov of the Russian Socialist Movement wrote that whether the naval conflict was the result of a Russian plan, an elaborate provocation by Poroshenko to gain support, or just the deed of some overzealous soldiers, “Russian leftists should demand that the Ukrainian sailors be freed, their ships and the rest of the Ukrainian navy’s property returned, and the incident should be investigated by international authorities, which the Kremlin is currently refusing to agree to. There are no other ways for Russia to disengage.”

In addition to the seizure of Crimea, Russia is supporting separatist forces in eastern Ukraine that have set up repressive governments, known as the Donetsk and Lugansk “People’s Republics.”

After four years of fighting in the east of Ukraine, 10,000 deaths (including several thousand civilians) and 1.5 million people internally displaced, no socialists in the West should harbor any illusions that these pro-Russia regimes are protecting Ukrainian workers from NATO or that Russia’s brutal FSB is leading the anti-fascist struggle against the reactionary Ukraine government.

On the contrary, the nationalist triumph and xenophobic hysteria surrounding the annexation of Crimea has given the Russian government cover for cutting health care and education funding and raising the retirement age as it continues to fine, jail and torture leftists.

But it is also the case that the Ukrainian government relies on far-right organizations that organize pogroms and break up protests while the police stand by — and it has the backing, including military, of the U.S. government, whose interests has been to challenge its superpower rival in its own backyard.

The left in the Ukraine is protesting Poroshenko’s authoritarian moves and demanding an end to austerity, as the statement published below illustrates.

The conflict and warfare pitting Ukraine against Russia has
decimated workers’ organizations, and it is imperative that it end so these organs of struggle can rebuild.

From the U.S., we should support the opposition to the Ukraine government that is demanding basic freedoms to organize and social protections to its citizens, while also supporting Russian comrades who oppose their rulers’ militarism and austerity..


How Martial Law Threatens the Rights of Working People

THE VERKHOVNA Rada has passed Law No. 9338, which introduces martial law in 10 regions of Ukraine for 30 days. The presidential decree that was passed by parliament implies that rights defined by a series of articles in the Constitution can be curtailed. Social Movement calls on citizens not to panic, but to be on the lookout for abuses and attempts by the ruling class to restrict the civic and social rights of Ukrainians.

1. Despite politicians’ promises, martial law does provide grounds to restrict freedom of assembly. Thus, working men and women will not be able to defend their rights.

Despite the legal ambiguities, it is our opinion that introducing martial law is a threat to the right of peaceful assembly. The president’s decree allows for limiting the freedom to assemble, protest and strike, although the way these will be limited is not defined.

Article 8 of the “Law on the Legal Status of Martial Law” gives to military commanders or military governments, if one is created, the power to establish concrete restrictions on freedom of assembly. So the military can choose to establish these restrictions or not, as it sees fit.

Local bureaucrats will ignore the fact that the president promised not to restrict these rights. If the police are granted an unconstitutional order to disperse a peaceful protest, then they are supposed to act on their “best judgment” as to what the law means.

We are also afraid that the government will overstep the boundaries it established here. We have already seen how the state apparatus oversteps the boundaries of its own laws. For example, after the “special period” was declared, protests near the presidential administration building were forbidden; even walking by the administration building has been restricted for almost five years.

The “Law on Decommunization” marked the beginning of a war on all socialist symbols (including renaming streets named after people who weren’t even affiliated with the Soviet government and never had official positions in the USSR) and left-leaning organizations, and the red-baiting atmosphere made it easier for those on the far right to justify their constant attacks on leftists, union organizers and human rights activists.

After the “Law on Sanctions” was passed, the government took measures that the law didn’t provide for, blocking social media, for example.

2. Martial law stalls the discussion of various social and economic problems. Many problems are not solved until citizens start to protest.

The example of miners in western Donbas is especially illustrative. Parliament introduced restrictions on free expression in regions where there are already massive wage arrears.

Evidence suggests that workers across Ukraine will be forced to avoid active protest measures for obvious reasons. We have received information about retaliations against protesters opposed to urban densification in Odessa.

The introduction of martial law directly affects rail workers, since a special operations regime was introduced for them. Workplace protests against disgraceful working conditions such as work-to-rule strikes aren’t formally forbidden, but they are increasingly risky. Moreover, some business owners will be able to refuse to fulfill the responsibilities outlined in collective bargaining agreements by framing the state of emergency as an “act of God.”

Increasing state control in the context of injustice will only increase social tension. Stability can only be guaranteed by immediately directing funds toward repaying stolen wages and meeting citizens’ needs.

3. Ukraine needs peace, not martial law. War is the basic condition for restricting civil and social rights. The authorities’ attempts to forbid things divide Ukraine even further, instead of leading to the end of the war and the return of Donbas.

We object to the idea of reviewing the [already austere] federal budget for this year. Military and law-enforcement funding has already reached record highs, and increasing it at the cost of social spending is counterproductive. Moreover, calls to cut financing for health care look downright grotesque if we consider the potential danger to citizens’ lives and health.

We should look for a peaceful solution to the escalation of the conflict in the Kerch Strait because war always hits the most vulnerable parts of the population the hardest. Our priority should be the release of the 23 Ukrainian sailors kidnapped by the FSB and their ships, which is why we demand that the Russian government let them go.

But the Ukrainian authorities’ most recent initiatives endanger their own citizens while playing into the hands of the aggressive Russian ruling class, which is also interested in distracting its citizens’ attention from domestic problems such as the fallout from the inhumane pension reform and suppressing economic protests like the recent Kamchatka miners’ strike.

4. Ukraine needs social democratic, not neoliberal reforms. And it is necessary to overturn all limitations on freedom of speech (the decommunization law, the blocking of websites, the closure of media outlets and persecution of journalists, and the restriction of transportation industry strikes). It is unacceptable to talk about austerity while oligarchs’ assets remain unconfiscated and while hiding funds in offshore accounts is still legal.

5. We call on citizens to hold the government accountable, not let it infringe human rights and write to us about any abuses that take place. Any legal ambiguities should be interpreted in favor of the freedom to assemble and freely express one’s opinions. The bureaucrats’ tyranny and infringement on your rights can’t be justified by external aggression.

Translated by Kate Seidel

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