Pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine reject further peace talks and announce offensive on all fronts
By Dale Street
Russian-separatist forces based in the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) have launched a major offensive against Ukrainian government forces in order to seize more territory.
The DPR was formally declared last May, after a sham referendum in which voters were not even asked if they backed independence. The DPR “head of state”, Alexander Zakharchenko, was appointed by Moscow in August, shortly before Russia escalated its aggression against Ukraine by invading the south-east of the country.
Zakharchenko won “elections” held in the DPR in November. But most opposition parties and would-be candidates for the position of head of state were banned from standing. The two candidates who were allowed to stand against Zakharchenko both declared their support for him.
The social basis of support for Zakharchenko is provided by the most conservative sections of the local population, especially senior citizens who pine for the “law and order” and moral intolerance of the long defunct Soviet Union.
Zakharchenko and the DPR are backed by western-European and Russian fascist and far right organisations, and also, of course, by the Russian government, which helped bring the DPR into existence and placed Zakharchenko in power.
The constitution of the DPR bans abortion, criminalises homosexuality, enshrines the Russian Orthodox Church as the state religion, guarantees protection of private property, and defines the DPR as part of “the Russian World, on the basis of its traditional religious, social, cultural and moral values.”
Workers’ rights are no part of the DPR’s political agenda. According to Hryhoriy Dotsenko, leader of the Ukrainian Independent Mineworkers Union:
“DPR and LPR (Lugansk People’s Republic) leaders are insisting that there be no independent miners union on their territory. Zakharchenko recently held a meeting with mine managers and union leaders and decreed, with an armed soldier by his side, a reduction in miners’ annual leave from 66 days to 24 days and a reduction in their pay.”
Organisations such as the UK-based “Campaign in Solidarity with the Anti-Fascist Resistance in Ukraine” claim that the DPR constitutes a form of “anti-fascist resistance,” battling against a non-existent fascist junta in Kiev [the UK Morning Star also peddles this line in all its coverage of Ukraine – JD]
This is a fantasy, albeit one with a political purpose. A peace deal signed in Minsk last September, following on from the Russian offensive, was meant to end fighting between the Ukrainian authorities and the DPR/LPR.
But in the months following the fighting continued, although initially at a much reduced level.
At the same time, and especially so in recent weeks, Russia continued to supply the DPR and LPR with troops and military equipment: tanks, armoured personnel carriers, Grad-missile launchers, Uragan missile-launchers, anti-aircraft artillery and radio-jamming equipment.
Russia denies that any of its troops are in the DPR/LPR. Confronted with hard evidence to the contrary, Russia has variously claimed that its troops had got lost and strayed into Ukraine by mistake, or had gone to fight in Ukraine “in a personal capacity”.
By the time of this renewed offensive, over a million people in Ukraine had fled their homes and over 5,000 people had been killed since last spring.
Since last September another hundred square miles of Ukrainian territory had been seized by the Russian-separatist forces. And in the nine days prior to the new offensive 262 people were killed.
On 23 January Zakharchenko announced that there would be no more peace talks with Kiev, that a new offensive was underway, including against the coastal city of Mariupol, and that the goal was to seize the entire territory of the Donetsk region (not just the area currently covered by the DPR).
Pavel Gubarev, the one-time self-proclaimed “people’s governor” of the Donetsk region, enthusiastically reported the first results of the new offensive on his Facebook page:
“Offensive on almost the entire front. We are attacking Avdyeyevka, Mariupol, Debaltsevo, Marinka. Ukrainian troops are pulling out of Dzerzhinsk. We are attacking Krimskoye, Popasnaya and Troitskoye. Krasny Partisan and Verkhnyetroitskoye have been captured, as well as Shuma. Peski is completely ours. Ukrainian troops are fleeing Yasinovata in panic.”
Zakharchenko claimed that the new offensive was a response to civilian deaths in Donetsk. But the breadth of the offensive, as described by Gubarev, underlines the fact that it had been in preparation for weeks.
Little more than twelve hours after the launch of the offensive, a salvo of Grad missiles fired from the east of Mariupol (i.e. territory controlled by Russian-separatists) hit a residential area of the city, killing thirty civilians and wounding another ninety.
A Russian anarchist summed up the characteristic dishonesty and incoherence of Zakharchenko’s response:
“Zakharchenko declares that Mariupol is under attack. Then after the news of dozens of civilian deaths, he says that there is no attack, or, to be more accurate, there is one but there is not one, just one without artillery, which the DPR does not have anyway, and, of course, cannot possibly have.
“No, it was Ukrainian troops who shelled Mariupol, in order to whip up public opinion against Russia, and that is was why it was correct to fire on Mariupol, to defend its peaceful Russian population from Ukrainian troops. And, anyway, how can you accuse the Russian army of firing on Mariupol if you still don’t know who opened fire on the Maidan?”
The Putin-loyal media in Russia repeated the line that Ukrainian troops had shelled Mariupol. In fact some Russian reports even claimed that the city had already surrendered to Russian-separatist forces.
The Ukrainian Stalinist sect Borotba, which the “Campaign in Solidarity with the Anti-Fascist Resistance in Ukraine” treats as a reliable source of information, also immediately claimed that the shelling had been carried out by Ukrainian forces.
The new offensive is a land and resources grab. Its major targets are Debaltsevo (crucial railway junction), Slaviansk (fresh water supplies) and Mariupol (access to the sea, and another step towards linking Russian with the Crimean peninsula which it annexed in March 2014).
The offensive also fits in with Putin’s longer-term strategy of weakening and destabilising Ukraine, so that he can exert increased pressure and control over the Ukrainian government as it continues to pursue a pro-EU and pro-NATO orientation.
As usual, the Kiev government claims (unreliably) that it is inflicting heavy losses on the Russian-separatist forces.
Apart from bringing more death and destruction to south-east Ukraine and furthering the interests of Russian imperialism, the offensive will almost certainly strengthen the right in Kiev-governed Ukraine.
The ruling oligarchs will demand yet more sacrifices from the working class in the “national interest”, in order to defend the country against Russian aggression. More anti-democratic legislation will be introduced on the pretext of combating terrorism within Ukraine.
Support for the far right will be boosted by the frontline role being played by the military units created by the Right Sector and the neo-Nazi Patriot of Ukraine. As was the case on the Maidan, they will win support not because of their politics but because of their readiness to fight.
Many people in Ukraine see the left as associated with the pro-Russian Ukrainian Communist Party and the ultra-reactionary Russian Communist Party. Syriza, which certainly is a party of the left, is also seen in both Ukraine and Russia as pro-Russia and anti-sanctions.
Denunciations of the Kiev government as a fascist junta and support for the DPR/LPR by sections of the left internationally only add to the disrepute and contempt for what is (wrongly) seen as left-wing politics.
Socialists need to back the real left in Ukraine and Russia and rally support internationally for its opposition to the Kiev oligarchs and to Russian imperialism and its stooges and allies in the DPR/LPR.