Ukraine: Fragile ceasefire holds but country remains “a tinder box”

Only united working class action can secure lasting peace

The newly announced cease-fire in the Ukrainian conflict follows a series of stillborn peace plans and unimplemented cease-fires and a two week period, in which both a war of words and military conflict in East Ukraine escalated.

At the start of peace talks in Minsk, two weeks ago, Ukrainian President Poroshenko promised he would resurrect the “road map” to peace he first proposed and then suspended in June. Russian President Putin, for his part, said he supported peace but that as Russia was not involved it was up to Ukraine to negotiate with rebel leaders. He made excuses for a group of Russian soldiers who had been captured in Ukraine by saying they had “lost their way”!

Within days, after Ukrainian forces were forced by what they claimed was a Russian tank battalion to retreat from Lugansk airport, Poroshenko warned that Russia was now using “direct and open aggression” and that Ukraine was fighting a “war on behalf of the whole of Europe”. In turn, Putin once again described the Kiev government as “Nazi”, warned the West not to “mess with us” and called for talks on the “statehood of southeast Ukraine”.

Up to the last minute before the cease-fire came into effect, fierce fighting raged on the edge of Mariupol. But at least for the first few hours, guns fell quiet, apart from in a few scattered regions, where, it appears, news of the ceasefire took some time to reach get through. By last Saturday afternoon however, both sides were alleging breaches of the agreement. The ceasefire was announced even before any negotiations started on the bitterly disputed political questions. For this reason, many people in both Ukraine and Russia are sceptical about the likely success of the cease-fire. According to the New York Times, it is “highly tenuous in a country that is a tinder box”.

‘You can hear shells exploding all over the city’

If the ceasefire holds and a political agreement is reached that reflects territory won by the rebels in Ukraine, this would mark a significant victory for the rebels and President Putin. Only in mid-August it appeared that the Ukrainian military forces were, under the guise of Poroshenko’s so-called “anti-terrorist operation”, moving towards the capture of Donetsk. It is reported that nearly two-thirds of the one-million strong population of the city fled to avoid the barrage of air raids, mortar shells and other fighting that accompanied the Ukrainian advance. For those that remained, life was a nightmare. According to one resident, Georgy (interviewed on Russian television) “you can hear shells exploding all over the city. All those that fall, fall on the homes of peaceful citizens, on private houses, tall buildings, hospitals, kindergartens, the infrastructure of the city is suffering. They aim intentionally for the electricity sub-stations, water supply, with the intention of making people get out and leave the city”.

When NATO and the western powers complain about the Russian involvement in eastern Ukraine, they say nothing about the use of aircraft and artillery by the pro-western Kiev government against their own population. And NATO has militarily intervened in several conflicts in recent years (from Kosovo to Libya) in pursuit of western imperialist aims and interests.

Plans to extend NATO’s presence even closer to Russia’s borders have been stepped up. New bases are to be opened in the Baltic States, Poland and Romania. A special 4,000 strong “rapid deployment force” is being established for Eastern Europe and now leading US politicians are calling for direct military aid to be sent to Ukraine. Canada has already started to send some minor, but symbolic, aid in the form of sleeping bags and infra-red goggles. As well as grievances over Kiev’s rule, many people in the South and East Ukraine think that this conflict is really about a clash between US imperialism and Russia.

Since mid-August, the pro-Russian forces have rebuffed Ukrainian forces, inflicting a number of serious defeats. As part of their advance, they have forced their way south to reach the Azov Sea. A day before the ceasefire, Mariupol, a major port with metal factories and a population of half a million, came under attack by pro-Russian forces. While half the population is Ukrainian, 90% of the population describe themselves as Russian-speaking. In preparation for the rebel assault, some residents dug trenches and local factories provided anti-tank barricades. As artillery shells began to fall on the city’s outskirts, hundreds gathered in the central square carrying Ukrainian flags. The city council decided to form a special “Mariupol” battalion to defend the city, based on the “Azov” battalion, led by members of the Ukrainian “National Socialist Assembly” – a far-right party. According to the Guardian (London, 10/09/14), “The battalion has even drawn far-right volunteers from abroad, such as Mikael Skillt, a 37-year-old Swede, trained as a sniper in the Swedish army, who described himself as an ‘ethnic nationalist’ and fights on the front line with the battalion”.

Civilian populations came under fierce, indiscriminate attack in a number of cities from both sides in the conflict. Local communities have, of course, the right to defend themselves. However because the working class has not been able to organise democratic, cross-ethnic resistance, forces hostile to the working class have come to the fore, leading the populations down the path of a brutal war.

Rapidly-changing military situation

The advances by the pro-Russian forces in the East is a turnaround, considering that the “unrecognised republics” of Donetsk (DPR) and Lugansk (LPR) were close to collapse in mid-August. The near collapse was due not just to the brutal attacks on residential areas by the Ukrainian forces but also because the leadership of these republics had managed to alienate a large section of the remaining residents. One Russian volunteer who travelled to Donetsk to support the DPR before becoming disillusioned, described how “probably the most widespread topic of conversation by residents became the lawlessness created by armed people wearing the DPR insignia. In particular, the use of the so-called ‘squeeze’, when people in uniform under some pretext (and more often without) simply ejected drivers from their cars or if there was any resistance ‘for the good of the revolution’ drove them off in an unknown direction. With everyday dissatisfaction grew, either because of social problems with the delay or non-payment of pensions and benefits, with the lawlessness of various representatives of the DPR or with some of the new laws passed by the republic’s government”.

He also described how, at a protest meeting in Donetsk, residents demanded “an end to violence and that the (DPR forces) stop placing Zenith rocket launchers on top of apartment blocks, so as not to provoke return fire onto peaceful residents”. The meeting ended with a call for UN peacekeeping troops to take over the city.

As if preparing for defeat, Denis Pushilin resigned as head of the Donetsk People’s Republic in July, and Valery Bolotov, head of the Lugansk People’s Republic, Alexander Borodai, premier, and Igor Strelkov, head of the armed forces of Donetsk, abandoned their posts in the second week of August, citing that they considered their tasks complete or that they had been wounded. It is more likely, however, that the Kremlin’s used its influence to have more pliable figures in place, particularly given that Strelkov was gaining a notorious hero status amongst Russia’s nationalist right wing.

Russia revising its military doctrine

As NATO and the EU have encroached further into Eastern Europe, Putin has stepped up his attempts to establish the Customs Union with Kazakhstan and Belarus and to extend Russia’s military influence. Putin has consistently attempted to maintain and extend the influence of Russia in the former Soviet states. As the victory of Euromaidan in early 2014 saw the Kiev government move closer to the EU, the realignment of the Crimea with Russia strengthened Putin’s hand both at home and abroad. Now in response to NATO’s proposal to establish the “rapid reaction force”, Russia’s military doctrine is to be revised. According to it will pay more attention to the threat posed by “colored revolutions” and take action to counter the NATO encroachment. It could well legitimise the use of covert and deniable operations.

But as far as the Kremlin’s strategy in Ukraine is concerned, it is probably true that, at this stage, the Putin regime does not want to annex any of southern or eastern Ukraine, unless it feels compelled later by events to do so, but aims to ensure the continuation of the rebel-controlled regions (proxy Russian territories) within Ukraine, as a means of pressurising Kiev and countering the regime’s further moves towards NATO or the EU.

The “seven-point peace plan” Putin drafted last week confirms this. It essentially boils down to two points: that the military forces of the DPR and LPR cease their advance and that the Kiev government accept the existence of the two republics by withdrawing troops from these regions. This would have led to what the Kremlin calls a “frozen conflict” – as long as the Kiev government accepts Moscow’s demands, no action would be taken, but as soon as it steps out of line, Moscow would “unfreeze” confrontation in these regions.

These demands are in sharp contrast to what Poroshenko is proposing. Apart from offering ‘new elections’ in the disputed areas, ‘financial support’ to restore the damage and guarantees for the ‘rights’ of Russian speakers, Poronshenko demands the disbandment of the rebel forces and the restoration of former government structures.

Poroshenko’s options limited

The scenario proposed by Russia and the pro-Russian republics will be very difficult for Poroshenko and his western backers to stomach. Poroshenko’s options are very limited because, as war is still raging and the economy is in freefall – GDP is expected to fall by 6.5% this year- he has dissolved the parliament in Kiev and called elections for 26 October, in the hope he can consolidate his support. According to opinion polls, all the parties elected in 2012 will lose significant support (the combined Yanukovich/ communist vote predicted to fall from over 40% to less than 10%; both Timoshenko’s and Klitchko’s parties losing a third of their votes and the far right Svoboda is estimated it will suffer a drop in half of its support). The two political forces likely to do well are Poroshenko’s block which, with the help of a split from Timoshenko’s Fatherland party, could get a third of the vote, and the Radical party (currently on 20%) of Oleg Lyashko, a far-right populist thug and former friend of Yanukovich, who is now leading vigilante groups in the East. If Poroshenko is seen to be making concessions to Putin, this nationalist threat could easily gain more support.

Having seen rebels under ferecios pressure from Kiev’s forces in mid-August, the Kremlin felt forced to step up a more open intervention. Also with summer coming to an end, Russia also faces severe difficulties in supplying the Crimea (there are currently only air and ferry links to mainland Russia) and it is suggested that the rebel drive south was in an attempt to open up a land corridor along the shore of the Azov Sea.

However much Putin and his foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, deny that there is an open intervention by Russia in support of the Donetsk and Lugansk rebels, fewer and fewer people in Russia believe it. Even on the official Russian TV, Zakharchenko, current leader of the Donetsk People’s Republic, claimed there were 3-4,000 “volunteers” from Russia, including many military officers and soldiers “who preferred not to spend their holidays on the beach”. There are many reports now circulating in Russia of both professional and conscript soldiers who have been sent to fight in Ukraine often against their will. Even though the military try to cover up the news of deaths or explain them away by saying that young soldiers died from accidents or heart attacks, relatives of those killed have started to speak out. Lena Fedorova, for example, buried her 27-year-old husband. She said she knows of at least two other deaths from his squad – a front-line unit trained, she says, “in case of war”. ‘Soldiers’ Mothers’, a Russian human rights’ organisation, claims that they have a list of over 400 dead and wounded Russian soldiers, and report that throughout the region bordering Ukraine, hospitals are full of wounded fighters.

No confidence in peace plans

Rather than the Minsk conference or this week’s cease-fire agreement between Putin and Poroshenko helping to ease the situation on the ground no one has any confidence that ceasefires and peace plans will be maintained. While the Kremlin probably wants to restrict further Russian intervention to pressurise Poroshenko, it should not be excluded that the logic of events is such that it could find itself going further than it would like. Even if, in the next few weeks, some political agreement can be reached, the underlying causes and tensions will remain and probably grow with time.

With no way of resolving these issues, the Western powers and the Kremlin have no option but to offer a combination of military threats and actions backed up by economic sanctions. Sanctions merely give the Kremlin another argument for its stance on Ukraine, while making things worse for working people in Russia and in the EU too. Angela Merkel tacitly acknowledged this, by warning, when she called for new sanctions to be prepared, that German companies will suffer. The German economy is now contracting, in part because of the drop in trade and confidence due to sanctions. When in response to EU sanctions, Putin banned the import of fresh fruit and vegetables from Europe, trucks full of perishables were turned around at the border and sent back to Greece, where farmers had to bear the losses. The Russian government argues that western sanctions will benefit Russian producers, who will replace imports by investing in new production, even promising cheap credit to farmers. The reality, however, is described by one farmer: “On TV, they say everything is fine. But when we ask the banks for credit, because of sanctions they have no money.”

The Russian economy was already sinking into recession before sanctions were implemented, a situation made worse by the costs of integrating Crimea into Russia’s economy. Even though many state and some private sector employees were instructed to take their holidays in Crimea, this has done little to save the Crimean tourist industry, on which about half of the Crimea’s population depend. In 2013, over 5 million tourists visited the peninsular, this year the figure is just half of that.

The Ukrainian economy is in a considerably worse state, with GDP falling by 5-8% this year and the country’s currency, the hrivna, falling in value by 62%. Notwithstanding direct financial support from the IMF to prop up the economy, the country could default and end up in the same situation as Greece, or worse. When the conflict was still at the level of skirmishes, most factories and mines in the disputed south eastern Ukraine regions remained working. But once the war took on a more destructive character, factories and workplaces, including Donetsk’s new international airport (built for the Euro 2012 football championship), suffered major damage and, in many cases, are no longer able to operate. Mines and foundries are left with just skeleton crews.

Independent workers’ movement needed

The main problem for workers and youth looking for a way out of this catastrophe is that there are no mass organisations or parties putting forward a class solution. According to one commentator in the south of Ukraine, between the ‘hot zones’ of Crimea and Donetsk, people are “demonstrating a fear deep-seated in their soul, a horror that there is no force in the country capable of resisting [the horrors]… they see no political force in Parliament representing and standing up for their interests”.

In a recent opinion poll, 57% of all Ukrainians think that Poroshenko’s military campaign in Donetsk should be stopped immediately and be replaced by a policy aimed at finding a compromise solution. In the Donetsk and Lugansk regions, the figure was much higher. But Poroshenko will not easily accept Russian dominance of East Ukraine, especially when pushed by oligarchs, nationalist forces and his international backers, nor will the pro-Russian and pro-capitalist leaderships of Donetsk and Lugansk, under Kremlin pressure, just surrender their positions. As a consequence, whole cities may continue to be attacked, and people will have to dig trenches, hide in basement bomb shelters or flee to live as refugees.

What is needed is for the working class to organise independently across Ukraine, to mobilise all those who want to resist the warmongers and the hostile forces based on nationalism and fascism, whose current influence will only prolong the nightmare. There is certainly potential to organise a mass movement to end the war – if the working class population of Donetsk was to organise with a clear leadership, it could win the support and sympathy of those soldiers in the Ukrainian army who are already discontented with the way they are being used in the military campaign. Such a movement would reach out and give support to the soldiers’ relatives who are already protesting at their husbands and sons being sent to war. It would stand shoulder to shoulder with the population of Mariupol, showing them that the way to oppose to warmongers is through working class solidarity. The movement would launch an appeal to working people across the country to unite in a common struggle against the austerity programme, privatisation and low wages.

In the same opinion poll, nearly two-thirds of the population blamed the Donetsk and Lugansk oligarchs for the current crisis. It is difficult to disagree that Akhmetov, formerly a pillar of support for ousted president Yanukovich, or that Poroshenko and Tymoshenko, who have tried to push Ukraine into the EU and NATO, or for that matter billionaire Governor Igor Kolomoiskii, in Dnepropetrovsk, with his private army, are responsible. They all became oligarchs as a result of the mass privatisation and austerity programmes and, still not satisfied, they want more. The poverty and social crises that have resulted from their actions have created the conditions in which this conflict has developed and they have all demonstrated they are prepared to whip up national discord in defence of their power and privileges.

Akhmetov, for example, was quite prepared to give support to DNR until his own business interests were put at risk by the developing conflict. To bolster their support in western Ukraine, business demagogues called for restrictions on the rights of Russian speakers. Having taken over Crimea, Russia has trampled on the rights of the Crimean Tartars and Ukrainians. Yet Ukraine is a multi-national country in which different languages are dominant in different regions. There should be no restrictions on the use of any of the languages found in the Ukraine and languages alongside Ukrainian should be recognised for use in dealing with government and official structures. Sufficient national and regional resources should be provided to support language training, research and national cultures. Those regions that want autonomy should have the right to achieve this democratic demand, and self-determination should be allowed, including within a federal state or even secession. But no trust should be put in big business and their political representatives, or their military forces to oversee any negotiations or voting.

Socialists, of course, support an immediate and permanent ceasefire and a peaceful negotiated settlement. But under whose auspices and in whose interests? Local reactionary politicians and oligarchs and outside capitalist powers stirred up and exploited the conflict and cannot bring lasting peace or a just solution for working people in Ukraine.

What is needed is a solution based on the interests of working people and the poor across Ukraine. A democratically-elected convention or assembly, with working class representation, could reach a peaceful solution, in an open and democratic way, based on the needs of all working people.

Moreover, the establishment of a democratically-elected constituent assembly, with working class majority rule, would see full democratic rights for all, including language rights, the right of self-determination, as well the carrying out of the democratic-public ownership of the main planks of the economy for need not profit.

Ukraine today is also in the middle of a fierce struggle between the interests of western big business and those of Russian capital. The truth is that it is not just the oligarchs to blame, but the very capitalist system that is supported by the oligarchs, the European Union and US, the leaders of the Donetsk and Lugansk rebels and Russia. The only way to challenge this is for the working class in Ukraine to build independent unions and other working class organisations, to organise their own political party. In this way, workers in Ukraine can struggle together with workers in neighbouring countries to replace the capitalist system of poverty and exploitation, repression and war with a genuine democratic and free socialist federation.

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