Ukraine slides towards military barbarism

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The crisis in Ukraine is the most dangerous in Europe since the break-up of Yugoslavia a quarter of a century ago, as Russia attempts to defend its interests in the region against the tendency for western European powers to gain more influence, threatening civil war internally and destabilisation in the region.

The country has a new president, Petro Poroshenko, elected by a majority in the first round of voting and promising to defeat the “separatist terrorists” in the East of the country within hours. A new hope he is not. His political career started in the United Social Democratic Party of Ukraine and then the Party of Regions, loyal to Kuchma, an ally of Russia, before swapping to Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine Bloc in 2001.  He has been a minister in governments of both Yushchenko and Yanukovych. A chocolate billionaire, he was accused of corruption in 2005 and fought the presidential election with the support of former boxer Vitaly Klitschko, who was elected Mayor of Kiev at the same time, and his corrupt backers, Levochkin and Firtash. Ukraine has yet another corrupt oligarch in charge, imposing the only perspective this rotten capitalist system has in store for humanity: militarism and austerity.

Far from defeating the pro-Russian separatists in hours, the fighting has continued with Ukraine repulsing a separatist assault on Donetsk airport, at the cost of dozens of lives, and losing a helicopter with a general on board. The fighting continues and the separatists remain in place.

Far from ushering in a new era of democratic stability and growth, Ukraine’s presidential election on 25 May was another step in its slide into bloody civil war, just as much as the referendums held by separatists in Crimea in March and Donetsk and Luhansk in May. What we are seeing is the widening of the internal divisions in this bankrupt artificial country, precipitated by imperialist manoeuvres from outside. The danger is that the country will be torn apart in civil war, ethnic cleansing, pogroms, massacres, and widening imperialist conflict and instability in the region.

Ukraine’s inherent instability

Ukraine is Europe’s second largest country, an artificial construct including 78% Ukrainians and 17% Russian-speaking who form the majority in the Donbas Region, as well as various other nationalities including the Crimean Tartars. Economic divisions follow much the same lines, with the coal and steel industries in the Russian speaking East largely exporting to Russia, and accounting for 25% of the country’s exports, and with the Western part of the country, which has been the scene of the Orange protests in 2004 and the Maidan protests this last winter, looking towards the EU for its salvation.

The economy is a disaster. By 1999 output fell to 40% of the level of 1991 when the country became independent. After a relative revival it contracted by 15% in 2009. The industry in the East is out of date, highly dangerous and polluting. Depletion of the mines has led to more dangerous working at depths up to 1200 metres with the threat of methane and coal dust explosions as well as rock bursts (the hazards that caused over 300 deaths recently in Soma, Turkey). Pollution from mine water affects water supplies, while antiquated coke and steel mills spew out visible air pollution and spoil tips or slag heaps risk mud slides[1]. Added to which there is radioactivity from Soviet era nuclear mining. These industries are not competitive in the medium term, or even the short term if they have to face EU competition, and it is difficult to see who will want to put in the necessary investment. Not the oligarchs who have a history of getting very, very rich while the economy goes to pot. Not Russia which has its own out of date Soviet era industry to cope with. And surely not Western European capital which presided over the closure of much of its own mining and steel industries in the 1970s and 1980s. The idea that Russia could offer a way out of economic disaster, impoverishment and unemployment, which has all been going on while the oligarchs get rich – a sort of nostalgia for Stalinism and its disguised unemployment – is a dangerous illusion that could only undermine the working class’ ability to defend itself.

Illusions in money from the west are equally dangerous. The IMF bailout in March, worth $14-18billion, replacing the $15billion withdrawn by Russia when Yanukovych fell, has come on condition of strict austerity, raising fuel prices 40% and cutting 10% of public sector employees, about 24,000 jobs. Unemployment figures are already unreliable as many people are unregistered or underemployed.

While Ukraine was part of the USSR and surrounded on its Western borders by Russian satellites, the divisions did not threaten the integrity of the country. This does not mean such divisions were not used and played on. For instance 70 years ago the Crimean Tartars were expelled and only recently some of them returned. The divisions are being played up in the most nauseating and bloodthirsty manner by all sides. It’s not just the far right Svoboda, nor the interim government’s rehabilitation of Stepan Bandera, the wartime Ukrainian Nazi: Yulia Tymoshenko uses the language of shooting and bombing Russian leaders and population, and Poroshenko is putting this into practice. The Russian side is equally nauseating and murderous. Both sides have formed paramilitaries. Even Kiev does not rely solely on the regular army. These irregular forces include the most dangerous fanatics, mercenaries, terrorists, killers, inflicting terror on the civilian population and killing each other. Once these forces are unleashed they will tend to become autonomous, out of control, leading to the sort of death toll we see in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya or Syria.

Russia defends its strategic interest in Crimea

Russian imperialism needs Crimea for its Black Sea fleet, a warm water fleet with access to the Mediterranean. Without its Crimean bases Russia could no longer maintain operations in the Mediterranean or the Indian Ocean. Its strategic position depends on Crimea. Ukraine is also needed for defence of the South Stream gas pipeline when it is finished. This has been a constant concern since Ukrainian independence. It simply cannot tolerate the possibility of a pro-Western Ukrainian government in charge of Crimea, hence its response to any question of an agreement with the EU. In 2010 it gave a discount on gas in return for an extension of the lease on its naval base in Crimea. When the Yanukovych government postponed the Association Agreement with the EU last November, Russia responded with a $15bn assistance package, which was halted when Yanukovych was impeached and fled Ukraine. Shortly after it took over Crimea and organised a referendum on joining Russia, which it could use in its propaganda war in favour of its annexation, despite the fact it has not been internationally recognised.

So in March Russia had Crimea, de facto if not recognised internationally. But it is still not secure, since it is surrounded by Ukraine, a country that is on its way to signing an Association Agreement with the EU and therefore allying with Russia’s enemies, and trying to escape from Russian blackmail by finding new donors in Western Europe. For strategic reasons, in order to have an overland access to Crimea, Russia needs the Eastern part of Ukraine under its control. Eastern Ukraine is a whole different matter from Crimea, despite the weight of the Russian-speaking population that provides the alibi for Russia’s moves. With no military base in Eastern Ukraine the separatist referendums in Donetsk and Luhansk cannot secure these regions for Russia but only destabilise them, lead to more fighting. It cannot even be certain to control the local separatist gangs.

Russia has one other card to play in the possible destabilisation in the area:Trans-Dniester, which broke away from Moldova on Ukraine’s South Western border, and also has a large Russian-speaking population.

Not a new cold war, but anotherspiral into military barbarity

This is by no means a return to the cold war. That was a period of decades of military tensions between two imperialist blocs that divided Europe. But in 1989 Russia had become weakened to the point that it could no longer keep control of its satellites, or even the old USSR, despite its efforts, such as the war in Chechnya. Now many Eastern European countries are in Nato, which can operate right up to the Russian border.  But Russia still has its nuclear arsenal, and it still has the same strategic interests. The threatened loss of all influence in Ukraine is a further weakening it cannot tolerate, and it has forced it to react.

The USA is the only remaining superpower, but it no longer has the authority of a bloc leader over its ‘allies’ and competitors in Europe, as shown by the fact that it could no longer mobilise these powers to support it in the second Iraq war the way it could in the first. The US has in fact been weakened by more than 20 years of being bogged down in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The USA is faced with the rise of a new rival, China, which is destabilising South East Asia and the Far East. As a result, despite the USA’s intention to cut its military budget, it is obliged to focus attention on that region of the world. Obama has said that “some of our most costly mistakes came not from our restraint, but from our willingness to rush into military adventures without thinking through the consequences[2]. That does not mean it will not try to get a piece of the Ukrainian action through diplomacy, propaganda and covert operations, but it has no immediate perspective of military intervention.  Russia does not face a united West, but a number of different countries all defending their own imperialist interests, however much they verbally condemn its moves in Ukraine. Britain does not want sanctions that harm Russian investment in the City, Germany is mindful of its current reliance on Russian gas, although it is searching for other energy suppliers. The Baltic states are in favour of the strongest condemnation and measures since with large Russian populations in their countries they also feel threatened. Thus the Ukrainian conflict has sparked off another spiral of military tensions in Eastern Europe, showing that they are an incurable cancer.

At present Russia faces sanctions which are potentially very damaging since it relies so much on its oil and gas exports. Its recent deal to sell gas to China will be a great help. China abstained on the UN condemnation of Russian annexation of Crimea.  On the level of propaganda it claims Taiwan on the same principle as Russia claimed Crimea, the unity of Chinese speaking people, but it does not want to admit the principle of self-determination when it has so many minorities of its own.

All the bourgeoisie’s factions, both within Ukraine and those stirring things up from outside, are facing a situation where every move makes things worse. This is like zugzwang in chess, a game much loved in Russia and Ukraine, a position in which any move a player can make only worsens his position, yet he has to move – or resign. For instance, Kiev and the EU want a closer association, which only leads to conflict with Russia and separatism in the East; Russia wants to secure its control of Crimea, but instead of taking control of Ukraine or its Eastern region all it can do is stir up separatism and instability. The more they try and defend their interests, the more chaotic the situation, the more the country slides towards open civil war – like Yugoslavia in the 1990s. This is a feature of the decomposition of capitalism in which the ruling class cannot put forward any rational perspective for society, and the working class is not yet able to put forward its own perspective.

The danger for the working class

The danger for the working class in this situation is that it should be recruited behind the various nationalist factions. This danger is greater because of the historical enmity based on the real barbarity carried out by each faction during the 20th century: the Ukrainian bourgeoisie can remind the population and particularly the working class of the famine that killed millions as a result of forced collectivisation under Stalinist Russia; the Russians can remind their population of the Ukrainian support for Germany in the Second World War; and the Tartars have not forgotten their expulsion from Crimea and the deaths of about half the 200,000 people affected. There is also the danger of workers being hoodwinked into blaming one or other faction for their increasing misery, and being drawn into support for the other on that basis. None of them have anything to offer the working class but worsening austerity and bloodthirsty conflict.

While it is inevitable that some workers will be drawn into the pro or anti-Russian sentiment[3] we do not know the situation on the ground. But the fact that the Donbas has become a battle ground for nationalist forces emphasises the weakness of the working class in the area. Faced with unemployment and poverty they have not been able to develop struggles for their own interests alongside their class brothers in western Ukraine, and are faced with the danger of being divided against each other.

There is a tiny, but nonetheless significant, minority of internationalists in Ukraine and Russia, the KRAS and others, whose courageous statement, “War on war! Not a single drop of blood for the ‘nation’![4], defends the working class position. The working class, while it cannot yet put forward its own revolutionary perspective, remains undefeated internationally, and this is the only hope for an alternative to capitalism’s headlong drive towards barbarism and self-destruction. 

Alex, 8.6.14

[1]. No-one who was living in the UK in 1966 can mention such mudslides without being reminded of the Aberfan disaster in which a slag heap buried a primary school, killing 116 children and 28 adults.


[2]. The Economist 31.5.14


[3]. For instance 300 miners, a significantly small number, rallied in support of separatists, (