By MICHAEL SCHREIBER
The conflict in Ukraine has greatly escalated in recent days, as open revolt against the right-wing government in Kiev sweeps through the eastern and southern sections of the country. Protesters state that they are trying to protect the Russian-speaking population from discrimination and fascist attacks. Many call for autonomy for their region, while others say they are seeking to secede from Ukraine and to join Russia—as Crimea did following its March 16 referendum.
Unemployment and falling living standards are also fueling the revolt, just as it did for many of the people who joined the demonstrations in Kiev’s Independence (“Maidan”) Square at the beginning of the year under the illusion that prosperity would arrive with an orientation toward the European Union.
The U.S.-dominated International Monetary Fund warns that the Ukraine economy faces a 5 percent contraction in 2014—even though the IMF has granted a $17 billion loan to the country over two years. Most of the funds from the IMF will go to paying back the Ukraine’s creditors—including $5 billion already owed to the IMF. In return for their loans, the Western imperialists are demanding drastic austerity measures aimed at the country’s working class. The current Ukrainian regime has already raised natural gas prices by 50 percent.
The ruling group in Kiev came to power in February in a coup that was closely supported by Washington. The new government was ushered into office after fascist and ultra-right forces effectively took the leadership of the Maidan protest. State Department Undersecretary Victoria Nuland admitted last December that the U.S. had poured some $5 billion into the country in attempts to destabilize and overthrow the previous regime; U.S. officials later handpicked the new prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk. The ruling group hopes to consolidate and legitimatize its power through presidential elections, which are scheduled for May 25.
In recent weeks, at least 600 battle-ready U.S. troops have been airlifted into neighboring Poland and into the Baltic States, and U.S. warships have been sent to the Black Sea. These moves signal the possibility of armed intervention, as leaders of the coup government in Kiev steadily beat the drums for war with Russia.
Although Russia has threatened to militarily intervene if the Russian-speaking population of the Ukraine is in danger, it would be hard pressed to counter a full-scale offensive by the U.S. and its NATO allies. No doubt with this in mind, Russian officials have indicated a preference for international talks leading toward establishment of a federal republic in Ukraine, with greater autonomy for the eastern region and guaranteed protections for Russian speakers. And in a conciliatory move, on May 8 Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that he was pulling troops back from the Ukrainian border, and that he backed the call for elections on May 25.
As we go to press, battles are raging in several cities. In Slovyansk, a city of 120,000 in the Donbas industrial belt, Ukrainian army troops, reportedly augmented by neo-Nazi Right Sector forces, have been trying to dislodge protesters who had seized government buildings and constructed defensive barricades in the streets. At the same time, the Kiev regime has sent a unit from its newly created National Guard—which incorporates Right Sector and other “Maidan” paramilitary units—to attempt to establish control of the country’s major port city, Odessa.
Vasyl Krutov, who serves as “anti-terrorism” minister for the ruling group in Kiev, has declared that the current military push “is not a short-term action. This is essentially a war.” The stakes are high since it would be catastrophic for the Kiev regime to give up its Black Sea port facilities and its industrial heartland in the east. The International Monetary Fund has threatened to cancel and renegotiate its loans to Kiev if the pro-Western regime loses control of those areas.
So far, the Kiev government’s “war” has met strong resistance, and the advance of its army has been slow. In April, some units defected to the so-called “rebels,” handing over armored trucks and weapons in the process. Since then, it appears that Kiev has sent in more reliable troops, which include hardened fascists. Yet protesters continue to occupy the cores of about a dozen cities, despite mounting casualties.
Fighting spread to Odessa on May 2, when Right Sector thugs attacked a number of anti-government protesters who had sought refuge inside the building of the local trade-union council. The fascists threw Molotov cocktails into the building, setting it on fire. At least 46 people (and perhaps many more) were reported to have died in the conflagration or in armed clashes in the vicinity. Eight people died from falls after they had hung onto upper-story windowsills in desperate attempts to escape the flames. Gruesome photos taken inside the building show a pregnant woman who was apparently strangled to death, and a man shot twice in the head.
A pro-government newspaper, Ukrainska Pravda, indicated that the mob outside the building did nothing to help the victims. “As the building burned, the Ukrainian activists continued to scream mottos about Putin and sing the Ukrainian national anthem.”
“The aim is to completely clear Odessa [of anti-government protesters],” a man identifying himself as a member of the Right Sector later crowed to the press. “They are all paid Russian separatists.” This atrocity followed other attacks by the Right Sector during the last couple of months. These included armed raids on Communist Party offices in Rovno and Sumo on April 15, in which a regional CP official was wounded, and the killing of two protesters when Right Sector members opened fire on an anti-fascist demonstration in Kharkov on March 14. After being apprehended for the killings, the Right Sector assassins argued that they should be free from prosecution since they were enrolled as members of the Kiev government’s National Guard.
In response to the Odessa attack, on May 4, about 2000 men and women attacked a police station in the city—smashing doors and windows and yelling, “fascists!” They demanded the release of anti-government activists who had been jailed inside; many of the prisoners had been arrested as they left the trade-union building, dazed and covered with blood. Police yielded to the protesters and released 67 prisoners held inside their jail. But the Interior Ministry in Kiev said that 42 other anti-government protesters in jail were being transferred to another region to prevent their being liberated.
The Odessa fire has become a cause for rallying the population in other sections of the country. On May 3 and 4, men and women occupied and looted several government buildings in Donetsk, as hundreds gathered in support, chanting, “Odessa will not be forgiven!” “No to fascism!”
According to AP reporter Matt Robinson, who was in Donetsk on May 3, “a couple of hundred people smashed up the city’s state security building as evening fell, then walked down the street and ransacked the business headquarters of the region’s Kiev-backed governor, steel baron Serhiy Taruta. They carried out chairs, crates of vodka, and icons. Middle-aged women cheered young men in balaclavas, the new power in this city of one million people built on steel and coal.
““This was for yesterday [in Odessa]! They’re monsters, worse than monsters,” said Tatiana Kamniva, who had joined the protest with her daughter. ‘This is just the beginning,’ she said.”
On May 4, as people occupied the Lenin district council building, “masked men in military fatigues and armed with automatic rifles made some attempt to marshal the crowd. … The building belonged to the people and shouldn’t be burned, a man said through a loud hailer. ‘Don’t worry, we’ll go west and take Kiev,’ he said, trying to placate them.”
The AP reporter noted that “there were similar scenes at the weekend in coastal Mariupol, south of Donetsk, where protesters torched a downtown branch of Privatbank, owned by an oligarch who backs the pro-European political forces in Kiev.”
“‘In our town, the people are in power,’ said a 55-year-old former sailor who gave his name as Mikhail, surveying the damage. His wife, Irina, said the arson was probably the work of more provocateurs trying to discredit the uprising. Nevertheless, Mikhail said, ‘They did right to burn it.’”
The Kiev government and the Obama administration maintain that the unrest in eastern Ukraine has been fomented, directed, and supplied by Russia. They allege, moreover, that Russian military operatives, although masked and in disguise, have taken a major part in the actions. Without hesitation, the U.S. media has relayed the same scenario, simplistically reducing the unrest in eastern Ukraine to something on the order of “Russian separatists against the Ukrainian people.”
To back their claims, the Kiev authorities released photographs of armed men in Ukraine together with photos of the same individuals that were purportedly taken in earlier Russian army operations in Chechnya and elsewhere. Soon afterward, however, some U.S. news sources, including The New York Times, found themselves forced to admit that the blurred photos were not entirely convincing. For example, one of the photos that The Times had featured, allegedly showing several Ukrainian rebel fighters in Russia, was actually shot in the Ukrainian city of Slovyansk, according to Maxim Dondyuk, the photographer who took the picture and posted it on his Instagram account.
It is not implausible, of course, that the Russian government has given some aid to the uprising. But interviews conducted on the barricades by Western reporters strongly suggest that the protests and building occupations have been carried out primarily by civilians, and that their weapons have been obtained locally.
The New York Times (May 4, 2014), which spoke to men defending the barricades in Slovyansk, noted that they appeared to have local support. “To the guys in Kiev, we are separatists and terrorists,” one man commented. “But to the people here, we are defenders and protectors.” The fighters were reported to have said that their heavy weapons “had either been taken from seized police buildings and a column of captured Ukrainian armored vehicles, or bought from corrupt Ukrainian soldiers.”
Unfortunately, the goals of the protesters are unclear; no political program has been put forward to map out a steady and principled course for the future.
Leaders of the self-styled “Donetsk People’s Republic” are organizing a regional referendum to take place on May 11—although Putin has expressed the wish that the vote be delayed. The referendum simply asks, “Do you support the Donetsk People’s Republic?” But what then? Moderate proponents of the referendum have told Western reporters that they view it simply as a form of pressure on the Kiev regime to grant more regional control. Many others express sentiment for secession from Ukraine and joining Russia. Both roads, however, would prove to be dead ends for working people.
Neither the government of Vladimir Putin, which represents the interests of Russian capitalism, nor the ruling group in Kiev, which slavishly follows the dictates of Western imperialism, is capable of providing any lasting solution for working people in Ukraine. The only way to abolish poverty and unemployment, and to overcome discrimination and fascist attacks, is for working people to surmount the artificial barriers between nationalities, cultures, and language groups, and to join together in an independent mass movement with the goal of bringing the major means of production and the state itself under the control of the working class. This will require the formation of a mass-based revolutionary socialist party throughout Ukraine—one that is in active solidarity with similar parties in Russia and throughout the world.
In the meantime, however, the danger still remains of a catastrophic war breaking out in Ukraine. It is not ruled out that the U.S. will decide to intervene militarily, which could result in major capitalist powers facing off in a military confrontation for the first time since World War II.
This is the time for antiwar activists in the U.S. and internationally to pour into the streets, demanding “No U.S./NATO intervention in Ukraine!” The United National Antiwar Coalition (UNAC) is calling for protests and teach-ins to take place from May 8 to May 26 around this demand. For more information, see unacpeace.org.
Photo: Local people in Slovansk hold back an armored vehicle. New York Daily News via Twitter.