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Ukraine: Government risks whirlwind to halt protests in east

Demonstrators opposed to Ukraine government policies, in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, April 6, 2014

Demonstrators opposed to the Ukraine government in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, April 6, 2014.

By Roger Annis

April 15, 2014 -- A Socialist in Canada, posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with permission -- Moves by the Ukraine government to crack down on protests against its rule in the east of the country appear to have quickly faltered and backfired. Protest actions are widening.

For several weeks, protests in eastern Ukraine have included occupations of government buildings and at least one regional declaration of pro-Russia secession. Late last week, the government in Kiev called the occupations acts of “terrorism” and said it would take steps to forcibly end them. It gave occupiers until April 14 to end their actions, saying it would unleash police and special military units.

But the deadline has come and gone, and the number of cities where protests and occupations are erupting is growing. These include takeovers of police stations and local policing duties.

Several news articles today are describing the government’s dilemma. Writing from Kiev, The Globe and Mail’s Mark MacKinnon explains:

[Interim Ukrainian President Oleksandr] Turchynov’s deadline came and went Monday without any sign of a concerted move to oust the militants, who now control the cities of Donetsk and Lugansk, as well as much of the densely populated coal-producing industrial region known as the Donbass.

On the contrary, MacKinnon reported, armed men seized a police station in the city of Horlivka, raising the Russian flag. He reports there are 10 cities in eastern Ukraine where one or more government buildings are under the control of forces advocating a decentralised national government.

The government is wracked by internal division. On April 14, interim president Turchynov demoted the head of the "anti-terrorist centre" of the Security Service of Ukraine. He appointed a deputy to take his place. He then contradicted last week’s hard line by appealing to the protesters who had proclaimed a "people’s republic" eight days ago in the industrial city of Donetsk. He suggested the government could hold a nationwide referendum on the future of Ukraine alongside the presidential elections scheduled for May 25.

But the protesters aren’t listening. They want some form of federal (less centralised) government in Ukraine and and they want to keep close economic ties to Russia.

Turchynov has also proposed a "peacekeeping' force for eastern Ukraine sponsored by the UN Security Council. But Russia holds a Security Council veto over such a decision and rejects such a proposal.

MacKinnon concludes, “Kremlin-connected analysts have told The Globe and Mail that [Russian President Vladimir] Putin will consider all options – up to and including the further use of force – to make sure that Ukraine never joins the EU or the NATO alliance. They say economic sanctions are very unlikely to convince Mr. Putin to change course.”

An article by the Associated Press describes the takeover of the police station in Horlivka in eastern Ukraine. It also describes a similar takeover in the town of Slovyansk, as does an article in the Guardian.

AP says that some police in eastern Ukraine are joining the protest movement or simply stepping aside. The AP article is titled, "Ukraine struggles as east slips out of its control".

According to the Guardian, Ukrainian special forces that moved into the city of Kramatorsk to suppress the protest movement were surrounded by angry locals asking why the troops were there and why they had fired weapons, injuring at least one man. General Vasily Krutov replied, “We are conducting an anti-terrorist operation.” He was interrupted by angry shouts of “What terrorists?” and received a blow to his head. He had to be hustled away to the local military airbase for his own protection.

A man who identified himself as Valery told the Guardian outside the barricaded airfield, “We’re not separatists. I don’t want Ukraine to be divided. I don’t want to give our land to Russia … I want a referendum because we can’t work with this regime any other way.”

The protest movement in east Ukraine follows the vote last month in the region of Crimea in south Ukraine to secede and join the Russian Federation. Both sets of events are prompted by the coming to power of a rightist government in Kiev in late February with key backing from the United States and Europe. It was the latest step in a several decades-long effort of the large imperialist countries to isolate and weaken the Russian Federation that emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.

Russia’s leaders have taken the refounded country along a capitalist path. They have also resisted the efforts of the US and Europe to penetrate and dominate the economies of eastern Europe and the republics of the former Soviet Union. Naturally, they have opposed the encroachment and military encirclement by the NATO military alliance, which is a direct violation of NATO’s promise that it would not take advantage of the post-Soviet chaos to threaten and weaken Russia’s military defences.

Protesters in eastern Ukraine are motivated by a strong mix of political sentiments and aspirations. Historical and cultural ties to Russia remain strong in a region that saw the most catastrophic military offensive in human history—the invasion by Germany of the Soviet Union in 1941. A majority of residents of the region claim Russian as their first language.

An important factor in the current protests is resistance to austerity. Protests arose throughout Ukraine last year against austerity and government corruption. These came to a head in Kiev early this year. Rightist and fascist forces intervened successfully to divert the aims of the movement and help bring a rightist government to power. The US and Europe backed that course.

Rightist forces also exist in Russia. They and the pro-capitalist government in Moscow are deeply invested in the fight over eastern Ukraine.

History

Ukraine is a nation historically oppressed by the pre-1917 Russian empire of the tsars (monarchs) and then by the Stalin-led regime that overthrew the program of the Russian Revolution during the course of the 1920s and 1930s. Ukraine gained independence in 1991, but its economy is deeply dependent on Russia, including for essential supplies of natural gas. It is also dependent on the world capitalist market by virtue of its significant exports of agricultural products.

The early years of the Russian Revolution saw decisive policies enacted in favour of national liberation – from creative forms of autonomy for some nationalities to outright independence for others. A 2006 article by John Riddell details this history, "The Russian Revolution and national freedom", as does a book on which that article draws heavily, "The Bolsheviks and the national question, 1917-1923", by Jeremy Smith, 1999 (comprehensive book review here).

The government that came into power in Kiev at the end of February this year is unashamedly determined to take the country into the economic embrace of the US and European Union, including the harsh policies of austerity that the big powers and international financial institutions say are a condition of closer ties. Today, it is facing a whirlwind from its threats against the population in the east of the country and risks losing control of the region entirely.

One man conveyed to the UK Independent in Horlivka yesterday the mixed feelings no doubt prevailing among many Ukrainians over events. He told the newspaper’s Kim Sengupta, “I have a lot of connections with Russia, I like Russia, I lived in Moscow; but what is happening now is astonishing, unbelievable. We think Putin will invade stealthily; the Kiev lot are incompetent, but they will have to fight and then there will be a lot of people killed. I worry about my country, my city.”

In the city of Yenakiyevo, activist Ruslan Tupiken told the Guardian‘s Luke Harding that said any attempt by Ukrainian authorities to recapture the city would end in disaster. “I don’t want the Russian military to come here. But if the Ukrainian army starts killing people then people here will welcome Russian forces.”

He added: “We are spiritually closer to Russia. We share the same faith. Plus everyone is mixed up. You have a mother living here in Ukraine, with her daughter just across the border in Russia. How can they fight?”

Postscript:

April 16, 2014 – Here is a brief, informative interview appearing today on the Real News Network with Nicolai N. Petro, professor of politics at the University of Rhode Island. During the collapse of the Soviet Union, Petro served as special assistant for policy in the US State Department.

Petyro argues that the goal of much of the protest movement in eastern Ukraine is not secession and affiliation to the Russian Federation, but a decentralised, federal Ukraine. He says in another, more lengthy interview on April 14, for example, that the appearance of the Russian flags at protests in eastern Ukraine does not symbolise advocacy of secession but rather of cultural and historical affirmation. The colours of the Russian flag – white, blue and red – are used in nearly all the flags of Slavic countries in eastern and central Europe.

I find Petryo’s analysis squares with much of the media reports I am seeing. Accordingly, I have made several adjustments to the above article in which I replace terminology referring to a "pro-Russia" protest movement and instead describe "a movement favouring a decentralised and federal government in Ukraine".

Petryo has published widely on Russian and international politics, and is currently in Ukraine on a Fulbright research fellowship. He publishes a very informative website at www.npetro.net.

Comments

Ukrainian Troops Surrender to Unarmed Pro-Russian Protesters

Reprinted from the Daily Beast

Ukrainian Troops Surrender to Unarmed Pro-Russian Protesters

Anna Nemtsova

If the paratroopers Kiev sent to Donetsk and Sloviansk are any example, armed resistance to Russia is doomed.

DONETSK, Ukraine—A few dozen exhausted looking Ukrainian paratroopers, mostly young draftees, had been sitting on top of their armored vehicles for several hours and, yeah, they confessed their butts hurt like hell. A week ago, after a couple of months of field exercises in southeastern Ukraine, their 25th Paratrooper Brigade was sent to the Donetsk region for “an anti-terrorist operation” against what they’d heard were Russian soldiers in unmarked uniforms. Now they were stuck in a crowd of a couple of hundred civilian protesters blocking their way to Donetsk outside the Pchelkino Railway Station. The pro-Russian protesters said they hated the new Ukrainian authorities in Kiev and demanded that the soldiers surrender.
The front lines in this crucial geopolitical standoff are a strange place to be right now. For all the talk about military operations, and the undoubted presence of well-armed, well-trained Russian-speaking gunmen in seized government buildings, the offensive to oust them announced by the government in Kiev is at best half-hearted, at worst a sad farce.

Nobody was pointing a gun at the Ukrainian grunts at the Pchelkino Station, but all the food they had with them were a few cans of pork stew, called tushonka. The crowd of ordinary local people coming from Sotsgorod, Yasnogoki, Belenky, and other surrounding villages brought the trapped soldiers ice cream, water, and cookies, begging the military to turn around and drive away, back to their hometown of Dnepropetrovsk in the center of the country. The soldiers smiled back at the friendly locals—they all felt homesick and could not wait to see their families. “Would you shoot at us?” a woman in a bright red jacket asked one of the soldiers. “Never,” he answered. “Paratroopers never shoot at peaceful people.” He admitted rather glumly that so far he had not seen any terrorists around, but added, “I would kill terrorists.”

A Ukrainian military helicopter circled above the scene. “Our army commanders wish they could solve the conflict peacefully too,” said one of the soldiers. A local man in a leather jacket shared his cigarettes with two young paratroopers sitting on top of a broken-down armored personnel carrier that had been dragged along behind the unit on a towrope. The soldiers asked their new friend to buy motor oil for them and offered him money.

People in the crowd discussed the chaos in the country and complained about increasing unemployment. Somebody mentioned a couple of cases of brutal robberies in the towns of Kramatorsk and Sloviansk, where more men were drinking after 6 p.m. than usual. “I could stay and guard your shops,” one of the Ukrainian paratroopers suggested with a smile. “And I would rather work as a security guard for a sauna full of beautiful girls!” his friend shouted and laughed. The soldiers allowed a curious 10-year-old boy to climb up onto their armored vehicle and explore inside.

The crowd of ordinary local people brought the trapped soldiers ice cream, water, and cookies, begging the military to turn around and drive away.

Meantime, pro-Russian deputies from the Party of Regions released a resolution in Donetsk urging the separatists to give up their weapons, an apparently conciliatory gesture from the organization of ousted President Viktor Yanukovych. But the resolution demanded official status for the Russian language and a referendum on federalism.

“The Kiev authorities are making a huge mistake by sending the army here; instead, they should just treat Russians populating our cities with respect and tension would immediately disappear,” said Yelena Skvortsova in the town of Sloviansk. She said she worried about “unidentified separatist forces” occupying the central Lenin Square, right where she lives in an apartment building with her husband and their baby. It’s not just the fear of open fighting, it’s the creeping lawlessness that bothers her. “One more month of this military conflict and our local criminals will begin looting every store and café in our town,” Skvortsova said.

But for now the Ukrainian military units ordered to put an end to the separatist movement in Donesk Oblast have refused to fight the protesters. Earlier on Wednesday outside Sloviansk, a crowd of pro-Russian demonstrators managed to convince a few dozen Ukrainian paratroopers from the same 25th Brigade to surrender. Ukrainian flags were taken off their four armored vehicles and locals presented with the flags of Russia and of the People’s Army of Donbas, the separatist militia. After switching sides, the soldiers drove to Lenin Square, where pro-Russian operatives have occupied the administration building since last week. Most of these militiamen claimed they were from Crimea; none of them spoke a word of Ukrainian. Still, they treated the surrendered Ukrainian paratroopers with courtesy and served them a nice meal inside the administration building.

The Ukrainian solders at Pchelkino Station were shocked when they heard that their colleagues had given up their weapons and their armored vehicles to pro-Russian protesters. But eventually they were convinced to do the same. By 6 p.m., a few soldiers had agreed to take their machine guns apart and pass them to the rebels. By 8 p.m., the entire unit crewing nine armored vehicles felt ready to make friends with the protesters. The soldiers took their machine guns apart and loaded them onto their radio truck, so the demonstrators knew that none of them could shoot, even if they wanted to. “They are not traitors,” said Alexander Ivanov, a pro-Russian activist in Kramatorsk, putting a generous spin on the surrender. “They were sworn to serve our people, and that’s what they are doing,” he told The Daily Beast. “The army should be with the people.”

Ukraine-Its All About Class

Just a few questions about this article and areas which aren't clear to me.

1. Are you suggesting that Ukraine is a colony of Russia, and that the struggle is one of national liberation from Russia? I ask this because this is the position which the American SWP (Militant) supports.

2. How does the question of class and the class struggle fit into your analysis? The Donbass region is the proletarian heart of this area of the world, with a history of heroic struggles. Your article seems to be centered around nationalism, not the fact that there have been proclaimed "Peoples' Republics" in several areas of the South and East (Donetsk, Odessa, etc) which would suggest to me that the program of the working class is to destroy the bourgeois Ukrainian state and its reactionary nationalism, not protect Ukrainian identity (the heart of Ukrainian fascist ideology).

3. In support of the thesis that the issue isn't "separatism" in the Donbass (unlike that of the Crimea where it was)I am reposting here a comment from comrade Priankoff on the website of Socialist Resistance, in Britain. I believe it is self-explanatory.

Excerpt from an interview in “Rabkor”, with Sergei Kirichuk of “Borotba” 11th April 2014– freely translated from Russian.

(Borotba is a Ukrainian Marxist tendency which has involved in the protests in Odessa and Kharkov. It has been growing and recently recruited an MP from the Ukraine CP. It doesn’t support Putin’s government.

“I would like to emphasize that this movement has two factions, two powerful currents:
Firstly, those people focused on Russia, who give priority to cooperation with Russia.

The second fraction – the part we represent, is anti-oligarchic and anti-capitalist
The latter want to overthrow the power of the oligarchic clans that run the country.
This position has very strong support here in Kharkov and in the Kharkov region.
Some protestors demonstrate under red flags, others under the Russian flag.
But we don’t believe that those who wave Russian flags are “separatists”
They want protection. They watch TV and the Ukrainian news – Russian (cable) TV is now being blocked – and they see the far-right groups, the activists who surrounded the Ukrainian parliament with guns…..
Of course, they want someone to protect them against all this.
Under the circumstances, we sympathise with this sentiment.
But we are consistent with the position that Ukraine should remain united.
In order to preserve this unity we have to respect the rights of the people of South-East and change anti-people policies of the government of Kiev. In the end this means changing the power in Kiev.

…our demands are in the ” here and now” are–
Autonomy for the Southeast, a referendum on autonomy, decentralization of power, an elected governor, county executives, judges and prosecutors, with the right to recall them at any time if they fail in their duties.
The second requirement is linguistic equality, with the right for all citizens to receive education and communications in their native language.
The third requirement is non-aligned status for Ukraine, no membership of any military-political alliances.
With the passage of time and in the course of this struggle, the fourth requirement is removal from power of the oligarchy -the richest people running the country.
These are the requirements set forth by the people of South-East in different forms and are repeated by all the political parties and movements involved in the protests. These are very heterogeneous, but this platform unites people in the Kharkov area.”

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