Ukraine: West aims for strategic control
By Simon Korner
The crisis in Ukraine is the result of a western attempt at regime change and strategic reorienation of this faultline nation.
The seizure of power in Ukraine by western-backed forces in February this year echoes events in Syria, where religious fighters – armed and orchestrated by outsiders – provided the shock troops for destabilisation and civil war, playing on sectarian divisions. Rather than jihadists playing that role, in Ukraine – as in Venezuela – it has been fascists.
An eleventh hour agreement on Feb 21st between Yanukovich and opposition leaders to hold early elections was immediately swept aside by the West intent on destabalisation, and Yanukovych was forced to flee.
Snipers were deployed to incite the violence, shooting both police and protestors, according to Estonia’s Foreign Minister, who was given the information by a doctor treating the victims - his revealing phone call to EU representative Caroline Ashton hacked by Ukrainian secret service loyal to Yanukovych.
The Ukrainian army remained in barracks throughout the coup, leaving the police – under the command of the opposition-run Interior Ministry – as the only state force, thus effectively sanctioning the coup. Since then, however, more positively, elements of the military in eastern Ukraine have sided against Kiev, and others have refrained from using force against anti-coup demonstrators.
Although Yanukovych’s corrupt government was unpopular, it was democratically elected, a vote nobody contested at the time of the 2010 election. Since his forced removal from office, Ukraine’s coup regime now consists of rightwing and neo-Nazi parties. Most key posts – including president, prime minister and interior minister – are occupied by members of the conservative nationalist Fatherland party, headed by gas billionaire Julia Tymoshenko.
The violent far-right core that led the Kiev demonstrations is also in government. Apart from fascist Spain, Portugal and Greece, this marks the first time neo-Nazis have held office in post-war Europe. The deputy prime minister, the ministers of defence, environment, education and agriculture, and the chief prosecutor, are all prominent in Svoboda – a party “more extreme than the French National Front or the Freedom Party of Austria”, according to commentator Anton Shekhovtsov.
Svoboda’s leader Oleg Tyagnybok – with whom Senator John McCain shared a platform in December – reveres wartime collaborationist leader Stefan Bandera, whose menacing red and black banner flies in the Maidan. Bandera’s men not only fought alongside the Nazis but continued fighting Soviet troops well into the 1950s. Tyagnybok blames the "Moscow-Jewish mafia” for Ukraine’s problems.
Another Svoboda man has been appointed governor of Zhytomyr province, which was the base for Himmler’s rule over Nazi-occupied Ukraine. Svoboda and Fatherland are now working in close alliance in government.
Of the paramilitary groups to the right of Svoboda, Right Sector – a coalition of neo-Nazi groups that emerged as a leading force in the protests – is policing Kiev with its armed men, and fascist paramilitaries have recently been drafted into the new 60,000-strong national guard. Right Sector’s charismatic leader Dmytro Yarosh, now the country’s deputy prosecutor, is running for president on May 25th. Yarosh has called for Gazprom pipelines to be destroyed if Russia does not comply with Kiev’s demands. In late April Yarosh moved the Right Sector’s headquarters eastwards from Kiev to Dnipopretovsk, as the new base for its growing ultra-nationalist militia. The group may attempt a second coup, if the new government compromises too far with Russia.
Boxing champion Vitali Klitschko’s Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reforms (UDAR) party – backed by Germany – did not participate in the coup, outflanked by Klitschko’s US-backed opponent Yatsenyuk of the Fatherland party. Klitschko also withdrew from the May presidential race in favour of the smaller Solidarity party’s Petro Poroshenko, a confectionary tycoon known as the ‘chocolate king’ who is leading in the opinion polls.Julia Tymoshenko – who is considered less hardline than her party-colleague Yatsenyuk, and who siphoned off $200 million while in government, money laundered by UK banks – and Poroshenko are likely to be the main contenders for the presidency.
The rightwing nature of the government can be seen in its initial programme which announced wage freezes and price rises to comply with the conditions for an IMF loan. Prime minister Yatsenyuk, who previously served as head of Ukraine’s central bank, foreign minister and economics minister, has stressed the need for “responsible government”, ready to force through austerity. On his visit to the US after taking office, he promised to be “the most unpopular prime minister in the whole history.” Ukraine’s longstanding gas subsidies to its people, amounting to 7.5% of the economy, will be an early casualty.
Another sign of the hard right’s ascendancy is the ruling that Ukrainian should be the only official language, not Russian – a move later vetoed by the president as too provocative. Russian TV channels have, however, been blocked from the airwaves. Three of the country’s wealthiest oligarchs have been installed as regional governors in in the industrial east, in Donbass, Dnipropetrovsk and Kharkiv, to ensure loyalty to the coup government.
Other negative signs are the plans to ban the Communist party – already banned in two western regions – and arson attacks on the house of Ukraine’s Communist party leader and on a synagogue, as well as physical attacks on Communist MPs and Party regional leaders. Advice given in late February by Kiev’s Rabbi Moshe Reuven Azman for Jews to “leave the city centre or the city altogether and, if possible, the country too” indicates the level of fear. YouTube footage, in March, showed Svoboda MP Igor Miroshnichenko and his henchmen roughing up the head of Ukrainian state TV and forcing him to sign a resignation letter for broadcasting a speech by Putin – underlining the violent anti-democratic nature of the regime.
Second phase of the crisis
Popular protests against the coup gathered pace rapidly. In the ethnically Russian region of Crimea – transferred by Krushchev from Russia to Ukraine in 1954 – mass demonstrations pushed the Crimean parliament to declare independence from Ukraine. In a hastily organized referendum held in mid-March, 96.77% backed a return to Russia, which took immediate effect. About two thirds of the Ukrainian soldiers stationed in the region stayed on in Russian Crimea, with some integrating into the Russian army. Spurred on by the success in Crimea anti-coup protests gained momentum in other parts of eastern Ukraine, with occupations of police stations and other public buildings in Donetsk, Kharkiv, Lukhansk, Slavyansk and other towns and cities, flying Russian flags and refusing to recognize the coup regime.
Following an agreement on April 17 between Ukraine, Russia, the EU and US to de-escalate the conflict, these protesters refused to end their occupations until the evacuation of the Maidan camp and the disarming of the Right Sector and the end of the illegitimate Kiev regime. Indeed the occupations have spread, most recently to Kostyyantnivka. The growing number of demonstrations in eastern Ukraine, and the declaration of the Donetsk People’s Republic in the region's biggest province, has been met with the threat of military force by Kiev to retake eastern Ukraine, in what they called an ‘anti-terrorist’ operation. Ukrainian forces regained the Kramatorsk military airfield, but so far the military threat has failed to materialize, with reports of villagers facing down tanks, troops refusing to fire on civilians, and weaponry being handed over to the anti-Kiev side.
Unable to rely on it own military, Kiev has resorted to the Right Sector, which has attacked an anti-Kiev road-block near Slavyansk and is provoking further violence from its new base in Dnipopetrovsk, for example, inciting ultra-nationalist football fans in Kharkiv in late April against a pro-autonomy demonstration. A number of other violent clashes have occurred throughout eastern Ukraine, but so far on a relatively small scale. In Donetsk, the western media reported anti-semitic leaflets in circulation, but leaders of the Donetsk People’s Republic denied responsibility and blamed Kiev, and the local rabbi denounced the leaflets as a “crude provocation”, according to the Jerusalem Post.
Meanwhile the detention of a group of western military officers by anti-coup protesters in Slavyansk lifted the lid on the covert operations being mounted by the West, particularly Germany. The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) mission, led by a German colonel, was not part of the civilian monitoring programme, agreed by the OSCE including Russia, as part of the Geneva agreement. Claus Neukirch of the OSCE said the military observers were sent as part of a bi-lateral German-Ukraine deal. The officers were found with military maps, and the acting mayor of Slavyansk accused them of spying on the protestors’ deployment in preparation for Ukrainian military action. Three Ukrainian secret service agents were also captured in Slavyansk around the same time.
Throughout the crisis the weakness of the working class movement has been evident. Even in the east, where Communists have some support, where immediately following the coup crowds defended statues of Lenin, and where the anti-coup protests have escalated, the sentiment appears Russian nationalist rather than class-conscious. On the other hand, the names and symbols chosen by the protestors – People’s Republic, hammer and sickle flags – suggest a positive attachment to the old socialist order. The protestors’ demands are consistently anti-Kiev, anti-western and protective of local heavy industry against IMF and EU plans to dismember it.
The signs of western interference were clear early on, when the Polish, Dutch and Lithuanian ambassadors marched with the protestors – against diplomatic protocol – and when senior US politicians travelled to Kiev to back the demonstrations.
Western NGOs, which helped overturn Yanukovych’s first presidency in 2004, played a similar role this year. The 2,200 NGOs operating in the Ukraine – with over $65 million to spend – include the CIA front the National Endowment for Democracy; USAID; the International Republican Institute; and the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs.
Control over Ukraine fits NATO’s long-term strategy of encircling Russia. Against George Bush’s promises not to expand the western alliance – made at the time of German reunification – nine former Warsaw Pact countries and three former Soviet republics have so far been absorbed into NATO. The European association agreement, whose rejection by Yanukoyvch provoked the crisis, formed part of this strategy, including clauses to integrate Ukraine into EU military structures.
If Russia’s fleet were ousted from its base in the Crimea, NATO would gain the Black Sea, depriving Russia of access to the Mediterranean and the Middle East and tightening its encirclement of a strategically weakened Russia.
The previous attempt to extend eastwards on the back of the Orange revolution was left unfinished, and NATO’s expansion was halted by Russia’s new assertiveness in the war in Georgia in 2008. In Ukraine, NATO has so far been thwarted in reaching Russia’s borders, but has, nevertheless succeeded in pulling western Ukraine into its orbit, putting pressure on vulnerable Russian gas and oil pipelines, all of which run through western Ukraine to the rest of Europe.
While the West is not ready for war with Russia, it is driving Ukraine into possible civil war, which could spark wider conflict. NATO’s Secretary General announced in a Bild interview plans to reinforce the 130,000 strong Ukrainian army, which although relatively weak, would “expose a lot of key weaknesses in the Russian Army” in any clash with Russia, according to Jane’s Intelligence Review.
NATO has deployed AWACS reconnaissance aircraft to Poland, and the US has increased the number of its F-15s patrolling the Baltic States, as well as reinforcing the Polish airforce’s F-16s. Britain has sent four RAF Typhoons to Lithuania. Hawks such as Jim Thomas in the Wall Street Journal have called for NATO planes to be made capable of carrying nuclear weapons. All these moves are designed not only to maintain US credibility in Europe but as a build-up for future conflict, with the US installing a Polish missile shield by 2018 as part of what Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel calls a ‘re-pivot back to Europe’ to confront Russia.
The West is not united, however, and it is this above all that makes military action unlikely in the short term.
Role of the US
Victoria Nuland, US Undersecretary of State for Europe and Asia, made at least four trips to Kiev before the coup, and admitted in December that the US had spent $5 billion on Ukraine since the 1990s, to build up proxy forces in the country. John Kerry, who took part in the Maidan demonstrations, called openly for insurrection against the elected government.
The leaked “Fuck the EU” phone call in February, between Nuland and Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt – a conversation no doubt typical of others – was revealing of US attitudes: “Yats is the guy. He’s got the economic experience, the governing experience. He’s the guy you know. ... He has warned there is an urgent need for unpopular cutting of subsidies and social payments before Ukraine can improve.” The US support for more brutal economic measures reflects its lack of dependence on Russian gas, unlike the EU countries, 76% of whose heating fuel came from Russia last year. Moreover with the US overtaking Russia as number one natural gas exporter, its strategy is, according to the New York Times, “aggressively to deploy the advantages of its new resources to undercut Russian natural gas sales to Ukraine and Europe.”
Nevertheless, despite a bellicose media campaign, a Pew poll showed a two-thirds majority believe the US should “not get too involved”, and a further poll in late March showed the same number rejecting military aid to Ukraine.
Germany’s role in stirring up the crisis is clear. Germany’s preferred leader Klitschko appealed for the formation of militias, along with the Right Sector’s call to arms. The shootings began the day after Yatsenyuk and Klitschko met Angela Merkel in Berlin – suggesting German assent.
The German president raised the possibility of sending German troops into Ukraine to “keep the peace”, and sections of the German media have been bellicose – the Suddeutsche Zeitung in particular urging German support for the spread of Ukraine-style uprisings in other former USSR countries, including Russia itself.
Germany was a key player in the analogous breakup of the former Yugoslavia, fulfilling her wartime aims of controlling the Balkans. Similarly, the Ukraine is a historic victim of German imperialism. The 1918 treaty of Brest Litovsk forced the Bolsheviks to give up Ukraine for peace, and in 1941, the Nazis took it by force. The former Head of Germany’s Defense Ministry’s Planning Staff and Die Zeit editor Theo Sommer, last November raised the key question: “Where are the eastern boundaries of the EU and where the western boundaries of Russia's sphere of influence?”
In economic terms, it is the EU Eastern partnership deal through which Germany has been attempting to gain economic control of Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Moldova and Belarus. The EU, which in 2012 gave Ukraine 610 million euros as inducement for signing its association deal, is now withholding any money and has called in the IMF instead, which has so far lent only $3 billion on strict conditions, at a time when Ukraine needs up to $80 billion.
Ukraine’s fate is set to follow that of Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary – driven into poverty by the EU. The new government has already promised Greek-style austerity, and the opening up of the east’s heavy industry to EU predators – hence the hatred of the Kiev regime in the east.
In spite of its needing Ukraine as a means of securing its domination of Europe and offsetting the threat from a rising Russia, German foreign policy is nonetheless more reticent and cautious than that of the US – not only because of its dependence on Russian gas, but because of its huge export trade with Russia. Opinion polls in Germany in March showed 77% against excluding Russia from the G8, and only 12% backing military support for Kiev.
Britain has been more restrained over the Ukraine than it was over Syria. The reason for this was underlined when a document being carried to a meeting in Downing Street was photographed by the press, containing the statement: “the government will not curb trade with Russia or close London’s financial centre to Russians as part of any possible package of sanctions against Moscow”. In other words, the City of London puts profits from Russia before co-operating with its imperialist rivals.
In late April, the Financial Times editorialised in favour of the mild round of new sanctions against Russia agreed by the G7, but advised against anything more meaningful, arguing that: “full-scale energy and banking sanctions should only be applied if Russian tanks cross the Ukrainian border.” The British banking and finance sectors are protecting their own interests.
Russia’s alternative to the EU association agreement is the offer of a customs union with Ukraine, extending the union it already has with Belarus and Kazakhstan. A tripartite arrangement between the EU, Russia and Ukraine would allow Ukraine to sustain its existing ties with Russia, but not exclusively. Putin also offered a $15bn bailout – an offer suspended during the current crisis – and a cut in the price of gas. By December, Russia had given $3 billion and was about to give the next tranche of $2 billion, when the crisis erupted. Russia’s offer is far larger than the EU’s and is not tied to IMF austerity measures.
After the coup Russia, which respected Ukraine’s neutrality for over 20 years, quickly mobilised its Crimea-based troops, surrounding Ukrainian military bases there, neutralising their forces without bloodshed.
Russia has had a longstanding agreement with Ukraine to station 24,000 troops in bases in Crimea, and in spite of the recent influx of more Russian soldiers, the total permitted number has not been exceeded. There was no ‘invasion’ of the Ukraine, as the western media maintains, and the post-referendum return of Crimea to Russia is widely regarded by all sides, as a fait accompli.
Western claims that the Russian army has been behind the wider eastern Ukraine protests remain unsubstantiated, and are denied by Russia. Recent press photographs in the New York Times ‘proving’ Russian involvement have been exposed as fabrications and retracted.
Nevertheless, it is the combined power of the Russian military mobilisation on the Ukraine border, the secession of Crimea, and the mass demonstrations and occupations of key buildings in eastern Ukrainian cities, that have so far forced the reactionary side onto the back foot.
Russia wants a neutral Ukraine outside NATO. It stands by the pre-coup Feb 21st agreement between the EU, Russia and Yanukovych which, had it not been sabotaged by western-backed snipers and the radical right in the Maidan, might have de-escalated the crisis by granting greater autonomy to the regions as a way of keeping the country together.
On the other hand, Russia, a rising capitalist power, should not be viewed simply as a force for progress. It has its own interests to promote, aspirations to regain territories lost to NATO. Its stoking up of nationalist fervour, using genuine grievances in the Ukraine, smacks of Great Russian chauvinism. But with NATO approaching its borders, it has been forced into a defensive stance, while the US faces no commensurate threat; and in doing so, Russia has shown its capability of acting as a brake on NATO’s expansion. Nor is Russia internationally isolated, as western politicians and media present it. In the crucial UN vote on the Crimea referendum, 69 countries abstained or voted against criticising Russia. China, Brazil, south Africa and India all abstained, and the BRICS as a group has refused to endorse the western policy.
Western moves since Crimea
Despite three rounds of sanctions announcements so far, western disunity has prevented hard-hitting measures against Russia. Apart from visa bans and asset freezes on some individual Russians and some companies, and the exclusion of Russia from the G8, major economic sanctions have been notably absent. According to Reuters, “building a consensus is tricky in Europe where many countries rely on Russian energy exports.” Obama, who won’t impose sanctions alone, has complained of European weakness: “If we, for example, say that we are not going to allow certain arms sales to Russia, but every European defense contractor backfills what we do, then it’s not very effective.” Even so, Russia has been hit by net capital flight of $64 billion in the first 3 months of 2014, tipping the country into recession. This may begin to limit its room for manoeuvre as the crisis continues.
The capitalist shock ‘therapy’ inflicted on Ukraine in the 1990s was part of the wider post-Cold War settlement, which “looks more like Versailles than it does Bretton Woods”, according to The Nation.
Corruption and poverty under successive post-Soviet Ukrainian governments provided a material basis for popular discontent. More than half the country’s national income was lost in the 5 years following the end of socialism, when 88% of its once powerful industrial base was privatised. The population of Ukraine fell from 52 to 45 million. A quarter of Ukraine’s population lives below the poverty line, while the country’s fifty richest capitalists own two thirds of its GDP. Yanukovych’s government represented the interests of Ukraine’s oligarchs - who backed both government and opposition – rather than those of the Ukrainian people. He engaged closely with the EU, and under him Ukraine supported NATO in the Libya war and participated in NATO exercises, yet his forced removal has only led to further immiseration and, potentially, civil war.
Western support for the Kiev regime, with little pretence of championing democracy, and its hypocrisy in defending Ukrainian sovereignty while ignoring Iraq’s and Libya’s, have led to public scepticism in the West over the need for damaging sanctions against Russia, let alone war. Unable to carry their populations – despite a sustained media bias urging tougher action – and unable to act in concert, the western powers are in some disarray.
The erosion of the unipolar post-Cold War order has been speeded up by the crisis, while Russia’s new self-confidence as a rising great power, willing and able to resist NATO’s 20-year enlargement at its expense, has become clearer.
"Britain has been more restrained over the Ukraine than it was over Syria...the City of London puts profits from Russia before co-operating with its imperialist rivals."