Ukraine in flames

February 20, 2014 at 6:38 pm (Europe, posted by JD, protest, riots, Russia, stalinism, thuggery)

Anti-government protesters clash with riot police.

Above: protesters behind metal shields in Kiev’s Independence Square, Tuesday

From Richard Greeman

Dear Friends,

As the uprising in the Ukraine seems to be coming to a crisis after weeks of mass demonstrations and occupations, I would like to translate for you the following letter received last week from Julia Gusseva, the Russian translator of Victor Serge and co-organizer of the International Conference of Independant Labor Unions in Kiev last November. Julia, an activist since the ‘80s, is one of the founders of the Praxis Center in Moscow, and writes from an anarcho-syndicalist viewpoint.

Dear Richard,

You ask what we think of the situation in the Ukraine. In fact, the Ukrainian movement is a part of the wave of civil protests that has been unfurling for the last few years in every corner of the world (“Arab Spring,” Occupy Wall Street, Indignados, the movements in Greece, Turkey, Russia …). In the Ukraine, the pretext was the refusal of the President to sign the agreement on association with the countries of the European Union. In this semi-authoritarian country, a large part of the population considered that association as a step toward democracy, rights, higher social standards, etc. The positive demands of the movement are democratic (return to the 2004 Constitution, new, free, honest elections, etc): the people are fighting for their full rights. The main thing is that the movement is self-organized (autonomous) everywhere around the country, with activists occupying the town halls, etc. The same labor unions who participated in our conference in Kiev last year have recently formed the all-Ukraine strike committee.

As far as the “leading personalities” of the movement are concerned, we see the same thing as in Russia, Turkey, etc: politicians who are trying to put themselves at the head of the movement, but whom the great mass of protesters does not at all recognize as their leaders. Yes, there are various political currents in the movement, including Ukrainian nationalists (and also the Left, which is part of the “citizen sector” of the protesters), but the vast majority – as in Russia and elsewhere – are regular citizens, non-party political activists.

Kiev has already seen police violence (before the current clashes – RG ) causing hundreds of injuries and (at least 70 at present -JD) deaths; this means the movement will not stop half way and fade out. Besides, the President is inclined to give in to popular pressure (there is no doubt that Putin would have acted differently in his place!) So there is a good chance that the popular movement will triumph and, on the condition that the politicians don’t turn it to their own ends, will make the Ukraine a freer and more democratic country than it is today.

Je t’embrasse, Julia

P.S.

Asked about the publicity given to the presence among the demonstrators of right-wing and nationalist elements (both in the mainstream media and on the Left), Julia referred me to this article, refuting what she called “Putinist/Stalinist insinuations about democratic revolutionary movement in Ukraine.”

6 Comments

  1. Babs said,

    Perspectives on the Ukrainian Protests
    Geopolitical Weekly
    TUESDAY, JANUARY 28, 2014 – 04:05
    Stratfor
    By George Friedman

    A few months ago, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich was expected to sign some agreements that could eventually integrate Ukraine with the European Union economically. Ultimately, Yanukovich refused to sign the agreements, a decision thousands of his countrymen immediately protested. The demonstrations later evolved, as they often do. Protesters started calling for political change, and when Yanukovich resisted their calls, they demanded new elections.

    Some protesters wanted Ukraine to have a European orientation rather than a Russian one. Others felt that the government was corrupt and should thus be replaced. These kinds of demonstrations occur in many countries. Sometimes they’re successful; sometimes they’re not. In most cases, the outcome matters only to the country’s citizens or to the citizens of neighboring states. But Ukraine is exceptional because it is enormously important. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Ukraine has had to pursue a delicate balance between the tenuous promises of a liberal, wealthy and somewhat aloof Europe and the fact that its very existence and independence can be a source of strategic vulnerability for Russia.

    Ukraine’s Importance

    Ukraine provides two things: strategic position and agricultural and mineral products. The latter are frequently important, but the former is universally important. Ukraine is central to Russia’s defensibility. The two countries share a long border, and Moscow is located only some 480 kilometers (about 300 miles) from Ukrainian territory — a stretch of land that is flat, easily traversed and thus difficult to defend. If some power were to block the Ukraine-Kazakh gap, Russia would be cut off from the Caucasus, its defensible southern border.

    Moreover, Ukraine is home to two critical ports, Odessa and Sevastopol, which are even more important to Russia than the port of Novorossiysk. Losing commercial and military access to those ports would completely undermine Russia’s influence in the Black Sea and cut off its access to the Mediterranean. Russia’s only remaining ports would be blocked by the Greenland-Iceland-U.K. gap to the west, by ice to the northeast, by Denmark on the Baltic Sea, and by Japan in the east.

    This explains why in 1917, when the Bolsheviks took power and sued for peace, the Germans demanded that Russia relinquish its control of most of Ukraine. The Germans wanted the food Ukraine produced and knew that if they had a presence there they could threaten Russia in perpetuity. In the end, it didn’t matter: Germany lost Word War I, and Russia reclaimed Ukraine. During World War II, the Germans seized Ukraine in the first year of their attack on the Soviet Union, exploited its agriculture and used it as the base to attack Stalingrad, trying to sever Russia from its supply lines in Baku. Between the wars, Stalin had to build up his industrial plant. He sold Ukrainian food overseas and used it to feed factory workers in Russia. The Ukrainians were left to starve, but the industry they built eventually helped the Soviets defeat Hitler. After the Soviets drove the Germans back, they seized Romania and Hungary and drove to Vienna, using Ukraine as their base.

    From the perspective of Europe, and particularly from the perspectives of former Soviet satellites, a Ukraine dominated by Russia would represent a potential threat from southern Poland to Romania. These countries already depend on Russian energy, fully aware that the Russians may eventually use that dependence as a lever to gain control over them. Russia’s ability not simply to project military power but also to cause unrest along the border or use commercial initiatives to undermine autonomy is a real fear.

    Thinking in military terms may seem more archaic to Westerners than it does to Russians and Central Europeans. For many Eastern Europeans, the Soviet withdrawal is a relatively recent memory, and they know that the Russians are capable of returning as suddenly as they left. For their part, the Russians know that NATO has no will to invade Russia, and war would be the last thing on the Germans’ minds even if they were capable of waging one. The Russians also remember that for all the economic and military malaise in Germany in 1932, the Germans became the dominant power in Europe by 1939. By 1941, they were driving into the Russian heartland. The farther you move away from a borderland, the more fantastic the fears appear. But inside the borderland, the fears seem far less preposterous for both sides.

    Russian Perspectives

    From the Russian point of view, therefore, tighter Ukrainian-EU integration represented a potentially mortal threat to Russian national security. After the Orange Revolution, which brought a short-lived pro-EU administration to power in the mid-2000s, Russian President Vladimir Putin made clear that he regarded Ukraine as essential to Russian security, alleging that the nongovernmental organizations that were fomenting unrest there were fronts for the U.S. State Department, the CIA and MI6. Whether the charges were true or not, Putin believed the course in which Ukraine was headed would be disastrous for Russia, and so he used economic pressure and state intelligence services to prevent Ukraine from taking that course.

    In my view, the 2008 Russo-Georgian War had as much to do with demonstrating to Kiev that Western guarantees were worthless, that the United States could not aid Georgia and that Russia had a capable military force as it did with Georgia itself. At the time, Georgia and Ukraine were seeking NATO and EU membership, and through its intervention in Georgia, Moscow succeeded in steering Ukraine away from these organizations. Today, the strategic threat to Russia is no less dire than it was 10 years ago, at least not in minds of the Russians, who would prefer a neutral Ukraine if not a pro-Russia Ukraine.

    Notably, Putin’s strategy toward the Russian periphery differs from those of his Soviet and czarist predecessors, who took direct responsibility for the various territories subordinate to them. Putin considers this a flawed strategy. It drained Moscow’s resources, even as the government could not hold the territories together.

    Putin’s strategy toward Ukraine, and indeed most of the former Soviet Union, entails less direct influence. He is not interested in governing Ukraine. He is not even all that interested in its foreign relationships. His goal is to have negative control, to prevent Ukraine from doing the things Russia doesn’t want it to do. Ukraine can be sovereign except in matters of fundamental importance to Russia. As far as Russia was concerned, the Ukrainian regime is free to be as liberal and democratic as it wants to be. But even the idea of further EU integration was a clear provocation. It was the actions of the European Union and the Germans — supporting opponents of Yanukovich openly, apart from interfering in the internal affairs of another country — that were detrimental to Russian national interests.

    European Perspectives

    Ukraine is not quite as strategically significant to Europe as it is to Russia. Europe never wanted to add Ukraine to its ranks; it merely wanted to open the door to the possibility. The European Union is in shambles. Given the horrific economic problems of Southern Europe, the idea of adding a country as weak and disorganized as Ukraine to the bloc is preposterous. The European Union has a cultural imperative among its elite toward expansion, an imperative that led them to include countries such as Cyprus. Cultural imperatives are hard to change, and so an invitation went out with no serious intentions behind it.

    For the Europeans, what the invitation really meant was that Ukraine could become European. It could have the constitutional democracy, liberalism and prosperity that every EU state is supposed to have. This is what appealed to most of the early demonstrators. However improbable full membership might be, the idea of becoming a modern European society is overwhelmingly appealing. Yanukovich’s rejection made some protesters feel that their great opportunity had slipped away — hence the initial demonstrations.

    The Germans are playing a complex game. They understood that Ukrainian membership in the European Union was unlikely to happen anytime soon. They also had important dealings with Russia, with which they had mutual energy and investment interests. It was odd that Berlin would support the demonstrators so publicly. However, the Germans were also managing coalitions within the European Union. The Baltic states and Poland were eager to see Ukraine drawn out of the Russian camp, since that would provide a needed, if incomplete, buffer between them and Russia (Belarus is still inside Russia’s sphere of influence). Therefore, the Germans had to choose between European partners, who cared about Ukraine, and Russia.

    The Russians have remained relatively calm — and quiet — throughout Ukraine’s protests. They understood that their power in Ukraine rested on more than simply one man or his party, so they allowed the crisis to stew. Given Russia’s current strategy in Ukraine, the Russians didn’t need to act, at least not publicly. Any government in Ukraine would face the same constraints as Yanukovich: little real hope of EU inclusion, a dependence on Moscow for energy and an integrated economy with Russia. Certainly, the Russians didn’t want a confrontation just before Sochi.

    The Russians also knew that the more tightly pro-Western forces controlled Kiev, the more fractious Ukraine could become. In general, eastern Ukraine is more oriented toward Russia: Its residents speak Russian, are Russian Orthodox and are loyal to the Moscow Patriarchy. Western Ukraine is oriented more toward Europe; its residents are Catholic or are loyal to the Kiev Patriarchy. These generalities belie a much more complex situation, of course. There are Moscow Orthodox members and Russian speakers in the west and Catholics and Kiev Orthodox in the east. Nevertheless, the tension between the regions is real, and heavy pro-EU pressure could split the country. If that were to happen, the bloc would find itself operating in chaos, but then the European Union did not have the wherewithal to operate meaningfully in Ukraine in the first place. The pro-EU government would encounter conflict and paralysis. For the time being that would suit the Russians, as unlikely as such a scenario might be.

    U.S. Perspectives

    As in most matters, it is important to understand where the United States fits in, if at all. Washington strongly supported the Orange Revolution, creating a major rift with Russia. The current policy of avoiding unnecessary involvement in Eurasian conflicts would suggest that the United States would stay out of Ukraine. But Russian behavior in the Snowden affair has angered Washington and opened the possibility that the United States might be happy to create some problems for Moscow ahead of the Sochi Olympics. The U.S. government may not be supporting nongovernmental organizations as much as its counterparts in Europe are, but it is still involved somewhat. In fact, Washington may even have enjoyed putting Russia on the defensive after having been put on the defensive by Russia in recent months.

    In any case, the stakes are high in Ukraine. The Russians are involved in a game they cannot afford to lose. There are several ways for them to win it. They only need to make the EU opening untenable for the Ukrainians, something Ukraine’s economic and social conditions facilitate. The Europeans are not going to be surging into Ukraine anytime soon, and while Poland would prefer that Ukraine remain neutral, Warsaw does not necessarily need a pro-Western Ukraine. The United States is interested in Ukraine as an irritant to Russia but is unwilling to take serious risks.

    A lot of countries have an interest in Ukraine, none more so than Russia. But for all the noise in Kiev and other cities, the outcome is unlikely to generate a definitive geopolitical shift in Ukraine. It does, however, provide an excellent example of how political unrest in a strategically critical country can affect the international system as a whole.

    In most countries, the events in Kiev would not have generated global interest. When you are a country like Ukraine, even nominal instability generates not only interest but also pressure and even intervention from all directions. This has been the historical problem of Ukraine. It is a country in an important location, and the pressures on it tend to magnify any internal conflicts until they destabilize the country in excess of the significance of the internal issues. Germany and the United States may continue to pursue goals that will further irritate Russia, but as Stratfor indicated in our 2014 annual forecast, they will avoid actions that would risk harming Moscow’s ties with Washington and Berlin. Russian influence in Ukraine is currently being limited by the proximity of the Olympics and the escalation in protests on the ground, but the fundamental geopolitical reality is that no country has a higher stake in Ukraine than Russia, nor a better ability to shape its fate.

  2. Babs said,

    “Why are people dying in Kiev in 2014, 23 years after Ukraine peacefully achieved independence?” asks an editorial in France’s Le Monde.

    “The question is whether or not countries on the fringes of the former Soviet empire are free to conclude partnership agreements with the EU and more generally, to freely decide on their destiny without a Russian veto… People are dying in Kiev because the Kremlin is seeking to impose a system of limited sovereignty on ‘nearby countries’,” it says.

    Yevgeniy Shestakov, writing in Russian state-owned daily Rossiyskaya Gazeta.

    “Even though people have been killed in the disorder in Kiev, Western politicians are refusing to acknowledge the Ukrainian opposition’s responsibility for renewed conflict. Contrary to photographic evidence, eyewitness testimony and plain common sense, they are blaming the violence on the Ukrainian leadership alone,” he writes

    “[They] propose that the Ukrainian authorities should surrender to a few thousand armed militants who have come to Kiev from Ukraine’s western regions. But will the east and south consent to power being seized by force like this? Or don’t the Western mediators understand that their proposed ‘peaceful path’ would trigger a civil conflict in Ukraine and the break-up of the country? This has already happened in Libya,” he writes.

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-26290625

  3. Arthur Seaton said,

    I’d certainly like to think that far-right elements weren’t a disturbingly large component of the opposition in Ukraine, but this interview with Anti Fascists in Ukraine gives a different, and worrying view

    http://www.timothyeastman.com/uncategorized/an-interview-with-mira-andrei-and-sascha-of-antifascist-action-ukraine/

    If anything, this aspect seems to have been completely swept under the carpet by the Western mainstream media

  4. dagmar said,

    The German SWP section says (or rather, they publish an interview, uncommented, with someone presumably from the Russian SWP section, who is in Kiev) the far-right are a major component of the opposition, at least those who are on the streets: but don’t worry, as fascism is an irrelvance as there is no working class movement to smash, and anyway, they are the hardest, toughest, most courageous street fighters.

    Of course, I summarise. But I do it accurately.

    http://tendancecoatesy.wordpress.com/2014/02/21/ukraine-where-does-the-left-stand/#comment-11367 and the comment after (currently in the moderation queue)

  5. dagmar said,

    from the Guardian:

    A Ukrainian rabbi has urged Kiev’s Jews to leave the city and even the state. Rabbi Moshe Reuven Azman, told Ma’ariv, an Israeli newspaper:

    “I told my congregation to leave the city center or the city all together and if possible the country too. I don’t want to tempt fate. But there are constant warnings concerning intentions to attack Jewish institutions.”

    Edward Dolinsky, head of the umbrella organization of Ukraine’s Jews described the situation in Kiev as dire, told Maariv “We contacted Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman requesting he assist us with securing the community.”

    • Jim Denham said,

      dagmar: of course the presence of far-right and anti-Semitic elements in the opposition is worrying, and you’re right to draw attention to it. But all the evidence is that they’re very much in the minority and do not define the political nature of the movement.

      I note, btw, that the loathsome Socialist Unity site, one of whose contributors John Wight is a well-known anti-Semite, has raised the Rabbi’s concerns as a cover for their support for Putin and Yanukovych. A BTL commenter, Sam 64, has replied:
      ********************************************************

      Looking around a variety of articles of the internet last night in English and French on the far right in Ukraine, I found one that mentioned a recent anti-Semitic attack on a couple of young Jews in Kiev. Despite the best intentions of the journalist, it didn’t seem linked to the anti-government protestors. In some of the older articles there was quite a bit on such sentiments within Yanukovych’s increasingly defunct Party of Regions, including in Kiev, I think it was a council decision, to build luxury flats on the site of a central synagogue destroyed by the Nazis – anti-Semitism plus corruption for the elite.

      Now given the history of Ukraine, it’s hardly surprising that the leader of the very small Jewish community should express fears amongst his community, specifically the break down of ‘law and order’ (that’s the same law and order that has been shooting down hundreds of young protestors over the last week and routinely look on whilst thugs half kill immigrants), especially given the role of outright Jew hating elements in the revolution. But it is worth noting that the call to get out if you can by Rabbi Razman doesn’t site a single anti-Semitic incident, let alone a pogrom, only ‘warnings’. And it is worth pointing out that rabbis all around the world, France would be a particular example, routinely call on their congregations to consider leaving and relocating to Israel.

      Meanwhile the well-balanced article in a Jewish online newspaper linked by Stephen Marks stresses the fears, but claims, ‘Jews have participated prominently in the pro-democracy and pro-European demonstrations on Maidan Square’.

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