Ukraine: reverberations of an imperialist ‘civil’ war

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When Poroshenko was elected president of Ukraine he promised to defeat the “separatist terrorists” in the Donbass region, and in the last month the combination of Kiev’s regular army and irregular militias has gained a lot of ground particularly around Luhansk, with increasing cost to life as the fighting moved into more populated cities with more civilians caught in the crossfire. Estimates of the dead are all above 2,000. To this can be added the 298 killed when flight MH17 was shot down when Russia put powerful antiaircraft guns in the hands of separatists without the ability, or even the concern, to recognise civilian transponder signals, compounded by capitalism’s way of balancing the risk of flying over a war zone against the cost of extra fuel to go round it.

Europe’s most serious security crisis[1]

Ukraine is an inherently unstable and artificial country[2] grouping the majority Ukrainian population with a minority of Russian speakers as well as various other nationalities. The component populations are divided by historic hatreds going back to the famines of Stalin’s forced collectivisation, to the divisions in the Second World War, the expulsion of Crimean Tartars, all of which is played on by the extreme nationalist politicians and gangs. Added to this, with the economy already in disastrous straits the Ukrainian west of the country sees its salvation in closer trade with the EU while the East remains tied to trade with Russia.

For all that, this ‘civil’ war is not a fundamentally Ukrainian affair, but one whose genesis and implications are completely integrated into the wider imperialist conflicts in Europe and beyond. Before 1989 Ukraine was part of the USSR and divisions were held in check. Today Russia finds itself more and more tightly squeezed by the expansion of the EU and of NATO to include much of its former Eastern European sphere of influence, so much so that Barack Obama says the challenges Russia represents are “effectively regional” (The Economist, 9.8.14). But even with this former superpower cut down to regional size, there are some things it cannot give up, including its Crimean base on the Black Sea, a warm water port giving access to the Mediterranean and via the Suez Canal to the Indian Ocean. Likewise it cannot allow Ukraine and its South Stream pipeline to fall entirely under the control of its rivals and enemies. Hence the encouragement and support to the separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk. In this Russia has benefited from the fact that the USA’s attention has turned to the Far East and the need to counter the rise of China.

So no way could Russia stand by and let ‘Novorossiya’ be destroyed. Russia has not only supplied heavy weapons to the separatists, but also has 20,000 troops massing near Rostov and carrying out manoeuvres on the Ukrainian border. The incursion of an estimated 1,000 troops has not only gone to the rescue of Donetsk, but started to make a land corridor towards Mariupol in the south. Clearly the ‘Novorossiyan’ separatists are not doing enough towards Russia’s desire to forge a land bridge to Crimea, which it annexed last March, and perhaps also towards the pro-Russian separatists in Trans-Dniester in Moldova. For the moment, this is only a not-so-covert incursion, not an open invasion. The perspective for now is continued destabilisation.

Meanwhile Ukraine wants to join NATO. Poroshenko and Putin may have met in Minsk at the Eurasian Union meeting in Minsk, but there was no basis for negotiation.

The ‘west’ cannot let Russia get away with this incursion, even if it is now only a regional power, even when Obama admitted the US has yet to develop a strategy to counter it. First of all there is diplomatic condemnation. Then there are increased sanctions, this time affecting Russian banks, decided after the Malaysian airliner was shot down. Then the question of supplying Kiev with aid: $690m from Germany as well as $1.4billion from the IMF (the second instalment of $17billion promised when Russia cut off aid last winter). No doubt the aid will also include sale of weapons. Lastly, Britain is to lead a new multilateral Joint Expeditionary Force of 10,000 from 6 countries, none of them NATO heavyweights, and Canada may also become involved – at this stage this is largely symbolic and certainly does not presage a military response to the Ukraine crisis. While all the EU countries are united in their interest in countering the Russian offensive, we should not imagine that there is a united ‘international community’ or ‘west’. In fact the neighbouring countries and European powers are all busy protecting their own interests: France is still delivering helicopter carriers to Russia, Britain still wants Russian businesses to invest through the City of London, and Germany still depends on Russian gas, and each wants the others to bear the cost of any sanctions. There are also divisions with those countries which take a much more hawkish view of the Russian incursions, usually because they have their own Russian minorities and fear the same kind of instability could be fomented at home. Meanwhile Serbia is caught in the dilemma of trying to keep its old Russian ally while also orientating itself towards the EU, a situation that cannot hold.

Internal ruin

The conflict in Ukraine is very destructive. In addition to the loss of life and physical destruction of infrastructure, particularly in the East, there is the effect on the economy. Although the mining and heavy industry in the Donbass is out of date and dangerous, the loss of a region that accounts for 16% of GDP and 27% of industrial production is a disaster for Kiev, whose GDP is predicted to fall by 6.5% by the end of the year and whose currency, the hryvnia, has fallen by 60% against the dollar since the beginning of the year. It is truly dependent on the aid it is getting.  Things will only get worse in the winter if Russia withholds the gas it depends on – with particularly disastrous implications for the population facing a Ukrainian winter.

117,000 people have been internally displaced and there are nearly a quarter of a million refugees in Russia.

The nature of the fighting, with both sides depending on militias made up of some of the worst fanatics, mercenaries, terrorists and adventurers, not only inflicts these killers on the civilian population now, but is also creating a really dangerous situation for the future. Who controls these irregular forces? Who will be able to call them off? We have only to look at the proliferation of various fanatical gangs in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria or Libya to see the threat.

The working class and the danger of nationalism

The greatest danger for the working class in the Ukrainian conflict is that it could be recruited behind the various nationalist factions. One very concrete guide to the success or failure of this recruitment can be seen in the willingness of workers to allow themselves to be drafted into the army, and in Ukraine there have been a number of protests against this. Mothers, wives and other relatives of soldiers have blocked roads in protest at their deployment to the Donbass: “after six soldiers originally from the region of Volhynia were killed, mothers, wives and relatives of soldiers of 51st brigade blocked the roads in the region of Volhinya to protest against further deployment of the unit in Donbas… 
Demonstrations and protests organized by wives and other relatives of draftees asking return of soldiers home or trying to block their departure to the front meanwhile spread to other regions of the Ukraine (Bukovina, Lviv, Kherson, Melitopol, Volhynia etc.). Families of the soldiers were blocking the roads with chopped down trees in the region of Lviv at the beginning of June
” (article by the Czech group Guerre de Classe posted on the ICC discussion forum)[3]. There have been occupations of recruitment offices, military training grounds, even an airport.

Not all protests have managed to avoid the siren songs of nationalism. For instance the same article reports demonstrations in the Donbass calling for peace and an end to the “anti-terrorist operation”, in other words only for the end to the military action by the other side. In spite of this they report strikes by miners in the region with demands for safety (not going underground when bombardment could lead to them being trapped) and for higher wages.

These protests reported by Guerre de Classe are an important sign that the working class is not defeated, that many workers are not willing to throw their lives away on such a military adventure for the ruling class. It does not mean that the working class in Ukraine and Russia is already strong enough to directly call the war into question and the danger of the working class being recruited by the various nationalist gangs remains. To truly put the war into question would require a much more massive and above all much more conscious struggle of the working class on an international scale.

Alex, 30.8.14

[1]. Polish foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski has described the Ukraine civil war as “Europe’s most serious security crisis over the past decades”.


[2]. See ‘Ukraine slides towards military barbarism’ in WR  366 (




Russian Imperialism