By MICHAEL SCHREIBER
Civilian casualties are quickly mounting as U.S.-supported Ukrainian troops redouble their offensive to capture the country’s rebellious eastern provinces. United Nations officials put the death toll in the region since mid-June at over 1500 civilians and combatants, with 3500 wounded. More than 285,000 people have been displaced from their homes in the most recent fighting. The Russian Red Cross has urged the evacuation of children from the war zone, observing that the region faces a major humanitarian catastrophe.
The pro-Western government in Kiev is escalating the war effort after having barely averted a severe parliamentary crisis at the end of July. The dispute in the Rada (parliament) was sparked in part by unease over the harsh terms of Ukraine’s austerity agreement with the European Union.
Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenuk offered to resign after two parties—the fascist Svoboda and the Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform—had withdrawn from the ruling coalition during a debate over Yatsenuk’s budget bills. One of the bills called for a 1.5 percent income tax hike in order to finance the war effort. The vote on July 31 was 16 for accepting Yatsenuk’s resignation, 109 against, and 325 who decided to stay home or not vote. The sitting parliament then voted to approve the bills—including fulfillment of the country’s obligations under the dictates of the EU’s bail-out agreement.
The agreement with the EU will hit working people hard with major cutbacks and layoffs. Of course, those were precisely the terms according to which the U.S. and the EU helped to shoehorn the Kiev government into power by means of a coup last February. In the long run, the Western powers view Ukraine as becoming a complete vassal to imperialism, both economically and politically.
As part of their game plan, the U.S. and its allies have joined Kiev in blaming the discontent in eastern Ukraine on alleged intervention by Vladimir Putin’s regime. This has been the prime excuse for a series of U.S.-initiated economic sanctions against Russia, which Japan and the major European countries have largely signed onto. The latest U.S. sanctions target Russian banks and the oil and defense industries.
In his comments to The Economist magazine on Aug. 2, Obama motivated his increasingly onerous sanctions against Russia, although he used some exaggeration in disparaging his opponents: “Russia doesn’t make anything. Immigrants aren’t rushing to Moscow in search of opportunity. The life expectancy of the Russian male is around 60 years old. The population is shrinking. And so we have to respond with resolve in what are effectively regional challenges that Russia presents.”
Western European countries, for their part, have been slightly more cautious than the U.S. in their implementation of economic sanctions against Russia. Germany, for example, imports virtually all of its gas from Russia. There is great fear that the Russian government will retaliate with its own sanctions against the West; Putin has already banned agricultural products from countries participating in the sanctions, and more measures are threatened. Nevertheless, the imperialists seem to agree that the risks of pushing Russia too hard are outweighed by the vast potential economic rewards. They intend to have a major role in the heightened exploitation of Ukraine’s oil, gas, and other resources—while cutting out Russia from gaining a significant piece of the pie.
The U.S. and its allies gained the opportunity to ramp up their accusations against Russia after a Malaysian airliner crashed in rebel-held territory southeast of Donetsk on July 17. The Obama administration claims that the plane was downed by a Russian-supplied SA-11 (BUK) missile that had been launched by Ukrainian rebels.
However, as we go to press, three weeks after the disaster, the scenario is still unclear. The Russian government has released data showing that a Ukrainian fighter jet flew within striking distance of the airliner at the time. And preliminary photos made available to the public do not conclusively demonstrate that the damage to the plane is consistent with what would be typically inflicted by a BUK missile.
Likewise, no evidence has been presented to back up the Obama administration’s assertion that Russia fomented the rebellion in eastern Ukraine and that it resolutely continues to arm the rebels. Leaders of the rebel groupings have repeatedly called upon Russia to come to their aid, but their trust in the Putin regime has not been reciprocated to any great extent by Russia.
The facts show that the rebellion against the Kiev government grew out of real fears of political repression. Soon after the February coup, resentment rose in the country’s largely Russian-speaking eastern provinces when the newly installed Ukrainian parliament passed legislation limiting Russian language rights. Although the law was rescinded after protests, attacks by Ukrainian ultra-nationalist and fascist forces—most notably the May 2 massacre of at least 42 anti-government protesters in Odessa—greatly enflamed the outrage felt by Russian speakers, and helped to fuel the armed rebellion.
As we go to press, Kiev authorities have promised to “storm” Donetsk, a city of close to 1 million. Heavily populated civilian neighborhoods have come under attack by artillery and airplanes. And Kiev ground forces—bolstered by ultra-right and fascist volunteers as well as by freshly called-up reservists and draftees—have almost surrounded the city, which has been in the hands of rebel fighters for many months.
On Aug. 5, Agence France-Presse reporter Anna Malpas filed an article in which she described the streets of central Donetsk as being almost deserted. Booms from artillery and mortars were constantly heard. Most shops, cafes, and libraries were closed; their windows were taped to minimize the glass shattering from bomb shrapnel. The only place where she found crowds of people was in the ornate Stalin-era railway station; many had gathered there to flee the city by train.
“They are bombing—that’s why we are getting far away from here,” a woman named Lyubov, who had fled from a nearby town, told the AFP reporter. “Our house burnt down and our neighbor’s too,” said Yuri, from the town of Shakhtarsk. “The whole street was bombed. We are going to Moscow, to my daughter’s place.”
“The situation is worse every day,” said Olga, a travel agent, one of the few people out on the streets. She said her family had fled their home near Donetsk airport to stay with friends in the city center after three weeks of heavy bombardment. “I ran with the kids under a hail of bullets,” she said, as she watched her two-year-old son play nearby. “It’s like in a film. It’s scary of course.”
As they slowly advance, Ukrainian government troops have largely cut off Donetsk from land travel to Luhansk—with 400,000 people, the second largest city in the east. Artillery fire and airstrikes have halted water, telephone, and electricity service in Luhansk. An AP report from Aug. 4 stated, “Store shelves are emptying fast, and those who haven’t managed to flee must drink untreated tap water. With little medicine left, doctors are sending patients home.
“Shelling is a daily occurrence and the targets apparently quite random. On Saturday, eight buildings were damaged by rockets. These included a school, a supermarket, and several multistory apartment blocks, Luhansk city government said.”
Despite recent military successes by Kiev troops, however, reports have surfaced of increased desertions. This reflects the antiwar sentiment expressed by working-class people throughout Ukraine. Many protests have taken place by parents and relatives of young men who were drafted into the armed forces under Ukraine’s July 22 conscription law. Women can be seen in photos and videos holding signs reading “Stop the Slaughter!”
In TV video taken of an angry anti-conscription protest in the village of Voloka (see slavyangrad.org), one man states, We don’t want war, we want peace. There is no need for our men to go fighting. For what?” A woman says, “We did not want war. Let those, who were protesting at Maidan go to fight. We did not seek for war. We all are one village, one big family, and we will let [the military] take neither my husband nor other’s ones, neither sons nor fathers for war.”
On July 27, over 40 Ukrainian army soldiers crossed into Russian territory after appealing for help to the local rebel militia. And on Aug. 3, another grouping—as many as 438 soldiers—crossed the Russian border. The army men “were tired of the war and wanted no further part in it,” one of the Russian border guards told Reuters. The Ukrainian Security Council has said that it is keeping in touch with the men “through diplomatic channels” and that some would be repatriated; others, apparently, are seeking asylum in Russia.
With little doubt, the most “reliable” (and most ferocious) troops are found within the reconstituted National Guard and other armed units that are often associated with ultra-nationalist and fascist forces. This is consistent with the fact that the military operation in the east is overseen by Secretary of National Security and Defense Andriy Parubly, a founder of the fascist Svoboda party.
In particular, the top leaders and many of the ranks of the elite Azov Battalion have been identified as members of the Social-National Assembly, the Right Sector, and other far-right organizations. The Azov Batallion, estimated in June to have had over 600 fighters in its ranks, is allegedly financed by multi-millionaire oligarch Igor Kolomoisky.
In one of its on-line publications, the Social-National Assembly declares its aims to be the “liberation of the entire White Race from the domination of the internationalist speculative capital” and “to punish severely sexual perversions and any interracial contacts that lead to the extinction of the white man.”
In late July, several media reporters were able to interview members of the Azov Battalion—including volunteers from foreign countries. The responses are quite typical of the racist rhetoric spewed out by fascist ideologues.
In a July 16 interview, BBC reporter Dina Newman spoke to Mikael Skillt, a man with seven year’s experience in the Swedish Army and Home Guard. He said that he is currently serving as a sniper with the Azov Battalion, and that he is also called on to “clear out houses” in civilian neighborhoods.
“Mr Skillt, wrote Newman, “believes races should not mix. He says the Jews are not white and should not mix with white people. His next project is to go fight for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad because he believes Mr Assad is standing up to ‘international Zionism.’”
In a July 24 article in Al Jazeera America, reporter Sabra Ayres spoke to Lemko, a volunteer of Ukrainian background who came from Canada. Lemko, she wrote, “said he was a national socialist—though he rejected the term neo-Nazi—and was a member of far-right groups in Canada.”
Lemko, like other Azov members who were interviewed by reporters, indicated that although they were fighting on the side of the Kiev government, they strongly disagreed with the government’s economic agreement with the European Union. Lemko told Al Jazeera that joining the EU would destroy Ukraine’s national identity, just as it destroyed countries in the rest of Europe who admitted immigrants who had come for economic reasons.
“Ukraine should be for Ukrainians,” Lemko said. “We don’t need the European idea of multicultural extremism here. Ukraine must protect its cultural and ethnic integrity.”
The Kiev government’s dependency on the fascists was illustrated by the remarks of Vasyl Arbuzov, an aide to the Kiev-appointed governor of Donetsk province, Sergei Taruta.
“The country is quite radicalized on both sides now,” he told the Al Jazeera interviewer in reference to the Azov Battalion. “These aren’t the kind of guys I hang out with on the weekend, but at the moment they are the kind of guys we need because they are willing to fight.”
An additional factor is that the German media, including Der Spiegel, have published reports for several months that foreign mercenaries employed by Academi (formerly Xe Services, and Blackwater before that) are operating in eastern Ukraine. But whether or not undercover mercenaries are participating in the fighting, the Obama administration is doing its best to directly maintain Kiev’s military forces in the field.
U.S. aid includes the appropriation of $23 million for defense security, $5 million for body armor and night-vision goggles, $8 million for Ukraine’s State Border Guard Service—plus radios, helmets, medical and food supplies, and other equipment. In June, Washington sent a squad of military advisors to Ukraine, which will now be augmented. On Aug. 1, President Obama requested Congressional approval to send U.S. troops into Ukraine to train and equip its National Guard. The plan, as outlined by the Pentagon, would make use of soldiers stationed in Europe or members of the California National Guard to train and equip four companies and one tactical headquarters of the Ukrainian National Guard. The deployment would be financed with $19 million from the Global Security Fund, a source of money that is tapped jointly by the Defense and State departments in order to fight global “terrorism.”
Antiwar and working-class activists must raise our demands ever more loudly: Stop the U.S.-supported slaughter in eastern Ukraine! No to the U.S.-backed, fascist-led coup! No to U.S./EU-imposed austerity in Ukraine! End all U.S. aid to the Kiev coup regime!
Photo: Demonstration in the city of Donetsk.