War clouds over Ukraine

Ukrainian society has been torn into hostile camps. Yesterday’s neighbours today face each other as enemies.

Chaos, death and the threat of civil war hang over the country. The front lines are unclear, events confusing and propaganda endless. The most persuasive arguments have become bursts of machine gun fire, soaring Molotov cocktails and flying bricks.

Thanks to the efforts of the mass media in Kiev, Moscow and Washington, understanding what is going on has become remarkably difficult. Nevertheless, the general outline of the struggle is explicable.

On one side is the central government in Kiev. This right wing, Western-oriented pro-austerity cabal of rich elites and fascists rode to power on the back of the Euromaidan movement – a popular mass movement of Ukrainians standing against government corruption and Russian imperial domination, which ousted former president Yanukovich.

The movement was skilfully sidetracked and betrayed by those who are now in power in Kiev. They represent the continuation of the policies of Yanukovich: brazen rule by corrupt oligarchs at the expense of workers, pensioners and the poor. Using the very real history of the domination of Ukraine by Russia, they have encouraged the most blatant and reactionary Ukrainian nationalism.

On the other side stand the separatist forces in the east and south of Ukraine, fighting against the central government and its military. The east of Ukraine historically was more integrated with Russia, and there are many Russian speakers who reacted with fear to the waves of nationalism emanating from Kiev’s new government – including the decision to strip Russian of its status as an official language.

Anti-Maidan movement

In response to Euromaidan, the so-called “anti-Maidan” movement has spread across eastern Ukraine, occupying government buildings, declaring liberated areas and demanding independence from the Kiev government. However, in contrast to Maidan, which was a popular mass movement appropriated by a reactionary leadership, in the anti-Maidan movement, popular involvement has from the beginning been subordinate to military action.

Political consciousness in the east is low. The historically most militant section of the working class, the miners of Donbass, have not led any struggles, and their leadership is divided between the pro-Western Independent Miners Union and the Union of Coal Workers connected to Yanukovich’s pro-Russian Party of the Regions.

While some demands of the anti-Maidan activists are popular and can mobilise thousands, the crowds are not leading the movement. The driving force consists of heavily armed groups of insurgents – a motley collection of different sections of the army, veterans, police and fascists as well as Russian-trained commandos and other adventurers, including left wing ones.

‘People’s Republic’

Their political demands have been diverse and confusing. The “People’s Republic of Donetsk”, proclaimed by a group of several hundred armed separatists on 7 April, has variously called for autonomy, independence or union with Russia. What is clear, however, is that anti-Maidan is not the organic expression of working class interests, as some on the left have made out.

Boris Kagarlitsky, for example, in an article published on the Links website, argues, “The Donetsk Republic formulates its agenda from below, literally on the run, in response to the public mood and the course of events … In essence, it is the perfect embodiment of the anarchist concept of the revolutionary order.”

This is wishful thinking of the highest order. The head of the “People’s Republic” is Pavel Gubarev, former member of the neo-Nazi Russian National Unity Party, which advocates, among other things, the forcible expulsion of all non-Russian ethnicities from Russia.

Russia’s role in the movement is complicated. On one hand, Putin views Ukraine as his possession – and the Russian annexation of Crimea earlier this year was a decisive step to maintain Russian control and influence over Ukraine, especially the vital gas pipelines that run through it. The Kremlin has also no doubt had influence on the anti-Maidan movement; some of the commanders of the movement are Russian-trained and come from Crimea.

However, anti-Maidan protesters are not simply Russian puppets. They have a momentum of their own that the Kremlin cannot control, and Putin is extremely wary of getting involved in a serious invasion of Ukraine for the simple reason that the repercussions would be huge and beyond what any of the parties could foresee.

Yet as Russia, Europe and the US spout platitudes about defusing the conflict and blame each other for it, they are secretly stirring the tensions in the despicable hope that the resulting conflagration will benefit them more than their imperialist rivals.

The latest tragedy is the events that transpired in Odessa. On 2 May, a group of Maidan fighters, including fascists from the Right Sector and ultras of the Chernomorets Football Club, marched across Odessa in a show of strength. They were met by anti-Maidan fighters and the “Odessa Squad”, a coalition of the far right pro-Russian “Slavic Unity” and the “Citizens’ Alliance of Odessa”.

Both groups were heavily armed with clubs, knives, axes and shields. After a scuffle, gunfire broke out while the police mostly stood and watched. By the evening, the ultras and the Right Sector, who heavily outnumbered the anti-Maidan protesters, drove them from their camp on Kulikovo field into Odessa’s Trade Unions House.

The house was hit by several Molotov cocktails. More than 40 people were burned to death or died from smoke poisoning.

Kiev and Moscow immediately blamed each other for the tragedy, and speculations abound whether it was an accident or premeditated murder – by Kiev to intimidate its opponents, by Moscow to discredit the Kiev government and gain sympathy, or by the Yanukovich clan to draw Russia into a full invasion of Ukraine.

While there is no doubt that all sides possess the capacity to engage in premeditated mass murder, the speculations are pointless. What led to Odessa is the deadly logic of a civil war being created by the rich oligarchs and heads of state, which is driving Ukrainians to hate each other. Things are starting to spiral more and more out of control.

The fact that the oligarchs and parasites who rule Ukraine, Russia and the EU have managed to divert the very considerable hatred that ordinary Ukrainians hold for them is lamentable. If there is any hope to salvage the situation, that anger must be turned again on the ruling class, to cut through the nationalist propaganda of both sides.