The May 2 massacre of more than 40 people in the Ukrainian city of Odessa is the direct result of the February 22 coup, spearheaded by fascistic elements, that installed a new government in Kiev with the backing of Western governments. The neo-Nazi Right Sector, a leading force in the protests in Kiev’s Maidan square that ushered in the coup, was in the vanguard of the assault on the trade-union headquarters where anti-government protesters had fled after being attacked. Fascist thugs torched an encampment near the building and then hurled firebombs that set the structure ablaze, shooting into it as people jumped to escape the flames. Several of those who survived the fire were shot or pummeled to death, including a supporter of the leftist Borotba group. Spray-painted on the building were swastika-like symbols and graffiti reading “Galician SS,” referring to a Ukrainian force that fought alongside the Nazis in World War II.
The same day as the slaughter in Odessa, the Kiev government launched a military assault on Slovyansk, one of many cities and towns in eastern Ukraine where residents have revolted against the regime. The death toll from military repression in the eastern region and Odessa is already over 100 as the government under Arseniy Yatsenyuk, the current U.S. favorite, and Oleksandr Turchynov aims to crush resistance in the area before the presidential election scheduled for May 25. Barack Obama’s response to the carnage: “The Ukrainian government has the right and responsibility to uphold law and order within its territory.”
Far from quelling popular anger at the central government, the killing of protesters has moved Ukraine closer to civil war. As Prime Minister Yatsenyuk appeared in Odessa two days after the massacre, militants freed 67 arrested anti-government protesters from a police station. Insurgents in predominantly Russian-speaking, industrial eastern Ukraine continue to occupy government and police buildings and to arm themselves. Protesters had risen up in dozens of cities and towns, enraged by the coup regime’s attempt to ban Russian as an official language and by the presence of the fascist Svoboda party in the government, where it controls the Interior Ministry, among others, as well as the chief prosecutor’s office. Derided by Right Sector as “liberal” and “conformist,” Svoboda derives from the Ukrainian nationalists led by Stepan Bandera, who militarily collaborated with Nazi Germany and carried out mass murders of Jews, Communists, Soviet soldiers and Poles.
Mainly based in western Ukraine, the heartland of Ukrainian nationalism and the Vatican-controlled Uniate (Eastern rite) Catholic church, Svoboda and Right Sector are bad news for all of Ukraine’s workers and minorities. They are an immediate deadly threat to the people of eastern Ukraine, where the main religion is Russian Orthodox, and cosmopolitan Odessa, site of a 1941 massacre of thousands of Jews by German-allied Romanian troops. Ukraine’s newly formed National Guard, one of the forces fighting insurgents in the east, incorporates Right Sector and other fascist militias. In Odessa, Jewish officials have announced plans to protect Jewish children if right-wing violence again erupts in the city, where a Holocaust memorial and a Jewish cemetery were recently defaced with swastikas, Right Sector symbols and death threats. It is a mark of the virulent anti-communism of the “Banderovtsy” that statues of Lenin have been defaced or toppled throughout western Ukraine.
Last week, it was reported that miners in Yenakiev, Donetsk province, seized the Iron and Steel Works plant owned by the Metinvest companies, chanting, “We shall not forgive them for Odessa!” The main owner of Metinvest is multibillionaire Rinat Akhmetov, one of the Ukrainian oligarchs who are widely despised by working people. Near Donetsk last month, some 2,000 coal miners reportedly went on strike to protest an outrageous 10 percent salary levy decreed by the central government to help pay for restoring central Kiev following the clashes that led to the coup. Slogans against the European Union (EU) raised by protesters in Donetsk, Slovyansk and other eastern cities speak to the fear that the government’s attempt to join that body would spell economic disaster, particularly for miners and factory workers in this already depressed region. Heavily tied to the Russian economy, eastern Ukraine’s relatively backward industries would be overwhelmed by competition from the advanced EU states, especially Germany.
The repression in the east and in Odessa has hardened hostility toward Kiev, as witnessed in the massive lines of people voting for self-rule in the May 11 referendums in Donetsk and Luhansk provinces. Organizers of the ballot earlier stated that “self rule” could encompass anything from a federated Ukraine (which seems highly unlikely with the West and the Kiev regime out to smash all opposition in the east) to independence to adhesion to Russia. People turned out in droves in the coastal city of Mariupol, site of an attack two days before by soldiers that, according to the Kiev government, killed up to 20 people.
The Wall Street Journal (11 May) wrote that although recent polls had shown a majority wanted close ties to Russia but to remain part of Ukraine, “recent fighting between the government and separatists may have tipped many toward independence, hoping it might at least lead to some stability. ‘Who likes it when a nation shoots at its own people?’ asked retiree Natalia Vasileva, who cast her ballot in central Donetsk. ‘We weren’t against being part of Ukraine, but after the latest events, we’ve changed our minds’.”
The overwhelming vote in favor of self-rule in the two provinces, carried out with no organized local opposition, was a straw poll but strongly indicated the sentiment of the population to pull away from Kiev’s control. The same U.S./EU/Kiev cabal behind the fascist-infested February coup is now screaming that the popular vote in Donetsk and Luhansk was “illegal.” It is the democratic right of the population in these areas to conduct the referendum and act on the vote for self-rule, up to and including independence or unification with Russia if they so desire. The leaders of the two self-declared People’s Republics now are pressing to join Russia. But the situation remains fluid.
It should be noted that voting took place only where insurgents had seized effective control and could militarily defend the ballot. Thus, it is not clear whether the sentiment for self-rule exists to the same degree elsewhere in the region. Eastern Ukraine is marked by a high degree of interpenetration and assimilation of Russians and Ukrainians. Many people have both Russian and Ukrainian heritage, while some identify themselves as “Soviet” and others as “people of the Donbass” (Donets basin).
In contrast to eastern Ukraine, the people of Crimea, which was long part of Russia, are ethnically Russian in their majority. Russia’s military intervention there, which allowed the population in Crimea to exercise its democratic right of self-determination, voting overwhelmingly to reunite with Russia. This despite the reality of Vladimir Putin’s regime, which brutally oppresses Muslim and other minorities as well as gays and enforces miserable conditions on working people.
Today, the interest of the working class—in Ukraine, Russia and internationally—lies in defense of the population in eastern Ukraine and Odessa against military repression and fascist terror. As anger at the Banderovtsy grows ever hotter, it would have been in the interest of the working class in Ukraine to mobilize to sweep the fascists off the streets of Kiev.
Fascist and official government terror: here is the true face of the Ukrainian “democracy” championed by Washington and its media mouthpieces. Washington’s bloody hands are all over the repression in Ukraine, just as they were behind the coup that unseated Viktor Yanukovich, the exiled former head of the Party of Regions. Yanukovich’s offense had been to accept an aid package from Moscow rather than implement austerity demanded by the International Monetary Fund as part of the deal for Ukraine to join the EU. Throwing money and publicity behind the Maidan protests, Washington determined the contours of the new government. When Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland infamously blurted out, “Fuck the EU,” this was at the end of a phone call to the American ambassador in which she laid out exactly who should lead the coup regime. In another moment of candor, Nuland admitted that the U.S. has spent a tidy $5 billion over the past two decades to secure a regime to its liking in Ukraine, funneled through such agencies as the CIA-linked National Endowment for Democracy.
The first two attempts to mount military attacks in eastern Ukraine directly followed visits to Kiev by CIA chief John Brennan and, one week later, Vice President Joe Biden. Both those offensives quickly ground to a halt. Troops refused to fight, turning over guns and vehicles to insurgents. But with local police forces melting away, the regime was able to put together a special police unit from Kiev as well as some military forces willing to fire on civilians.
This is being done, according to German sources, with the assistance of “dozens of specialists from the US Central Intelligence Agency and Federal Bureau of Investigation,” who are “helping Kiev end the rebellion in the east of Ukraine and set up a functioning security structure” (Agence France-Presse, 4 May). These agents are also pursuing corruption charges against various Ukrainian industrialists tied to Russia, complementing punitive Western sanctions against oligarchs in Russia associated with Putin. Yesterday, the right-wing German newspaper Bild am Sonntag reported that some 400 American mercenaries from Academi (formerly Blackwater) are taking part in military operations against protesters in southeastern Ukraine.
Following Kiev’s first failed attempt to quell the uprisings, Washington claimed that Moscow broke a truce agreement by failing to rein in the protesters, who are depicted by the Western press as mere tools of Putin, himself portrayed as the reincarnation of Hitler. This is just one part of a massive blitz issued by the U.S. government to cover its machinations in Ukraine. Even the standard depiction of protesters as “pro-Russian” is a misnomer: interviews of people in eastern Ukraine reveal a wide range of opinion on the region’s future status.
Since the West and their media mouthpieces have no evidence to back their assertions that the rebels are “terrorists” in thrall to Moscow, they are doing what is customary in such situations: they make it up. A flyer supposedly issued by insurgents declaring that Jews would have to register with local authorities quickly proved to be a fake. Then came photos published in the New York Times that purportedly showed armed men in Russia—i.e., agents of Moscow—who were later seen fighting with the insurgents in eastern Ukraine. The photos were soon revealed to have been taken in Ukraine, proving nothing.
Meanwhile, the Times continues to provide cover for Svoboda and Right Sector by minimizing their role in the terror and disappearing the fact that they are fascists. A May 6 Times article blandly describes the “Kiev-1” police unit dispatched from the capital to Odessa following the massacre as “drawn from the street activists who helped topple Ukraine’s government in February.” To be clear: these are “activists” of the type who paraded through Maidan with torches and clubs, portraits of Bandera and neo-Nazi insignia—i.e., Ukraine’s very own brownshirts. Families in Odessa and eastern Ukraine in particular know the score all too well, based on ineradicable memories of the Nazis and their Ukrainian henchmen who carried out unspeakable genocidal crimes during WWII.
The disinformation about Ukraine comes from the same “newspaper of record” that retailed the U.S. rulers’ lies about Saddam Hussein’s (non-existent) “weapons of mass destruction,” the pretext for the Iraq occupation. Such deception is second nature for the bourgeois press, whose fundamental role is to mold public opinion, although it can be truthful on secondary or smaller matters to enhance its credibility.
Western propaganda reached fever pitch over Russia’s “invasion” of Crimea. No such thing took place. With its mostly Russian population, Crimea is home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet and already had thousands of Russian troops. Putin’s move was essentially defensive, aiming to protect the fleet in the face of a hostile, Western-backed government in Kiev.
As the rebellions erupted in eastern Ukraine, the Obama administration screamed about the presence of 40,000 Russian troops along the border in Russia—this from a government that keeps tens of thousands of troops and cops on the Mexican border to stop the victims of subjugation from entering the U.S. Painting the Russian military exercises along the border as the harbinger of an invasion of Ukraine, the U.S. stepped up its military provocations in the region. The USS Donald Cook, a guided missile destroyer, entered the Black Sea last month. It was later joined by a Navy frigate that took part in exercises with Romania, one of NATO’s newer member states. Two French military ships also entered the Black Sea last month. Meanwhile, some 600 U.S. paratroopers were dispatched to Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania—former components of the Soviet Union—and to Poland. Early this month, NATO’s annual “Spring Storm” exercise in Estonia began, involving a record-breaking 6,000 troops.
The demonization of the Putin regime is in the service of Washington’s longstanding drive to curtail Russia’s strength as a regional power and potential rival. With the counterrevolution in 1991-92 that destroyed the Soviet Union, the U.S. achieved unchallenged world supremacy. Early in 1992, a government document called the Defense Planning Guidance declared: “Our first objective is to prevent the re-emergence of a new rival, either on the territory of the former Soviet Union or elsewhere.” Warning of the risks of a nationalist backlash in Russia or efforts to reincorporate Ukraine and other parts of the former USSR into Russia, the document stated that the U.S. must “protect a new order…for deterring potential competitors from even aspiring to a larger regional or global role.”
Two years later, former national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski wrote in Foreign Affairs (March/April 1994): “It cannot be stressed strongly enough that without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be an empire, but with Ukraine suborned and then subordinated, Russia automatically becomes an empire.” Containing Russia and drawing Ukraine to the West has been the policy of Republican and Democratic administrations alike. Under Bill Clinton, NATO expanded to include Poland and other East European states, with the Baltic states joining early in the George W. Bush presidency. Under Bush, the U.S. also lavished financial and diplomatic support on the so-called “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine in 2004, one of many such efforts aimed at installing pliant regimes in the territories of the former USSR. And now Washington has a quisling regime in place in Kiev.
The U.S. has also established bases across Central Asia and elsewhere on Russia’s periphery. This military extension is aimed at encircling not only Russia but also China. Putin, for his part, has repeatedly tried to accommodate the U.S., for example by allowing the American military to traverse Russian territory into and out of Afghanistan. His reward has been one kick in the teeth after another.
Yet Russia is no pushover. While its economy is distorted by its heavy reliance on oil and gas exports, the country maintains a large military force and a nuclear arsenal second only to that of the U.S., as well as significant technical expertise. Furthermore, the U.S. cannot necessarily count on the support of its allies for the anti-Russia campaign. While Germany’s Angela Merkel has joined Obama in denouncing Putin over Ukraine, even as she bristles at continuing U.S. surveillance programs targeting herself, many German enterprises that are dependent on trade with Russia object to economic sanctions levied against tycoons associated with Putin. Today, France announced it is moving ahead with the sale of two helicopter assault ships to Russia, defying U.S. pressure to punish Moscow.
At home, Washington’s efforts to whip up public sentiment against Russia over Ukraine have fallen flat. War-weary after the seemingly endless neocolonial occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, working people are preoccupied with ongoing assaults on their wages, medical and retirement benefits and other necessities of life.
Referring to eastern Ukraine and Odessa as “New Russia,” Putin recently complained that these areas “were not part of Ukraine in tsarist times” but were “transferred in 1920. Why? God knows.” No, the answer can be found here on earth. It was under the Bolshevik regime issuing out of the 1917 October Revolution that Ukraine achieved even the semblance of national unification and the right to separate statehood. The working class in Ukraine, particularly in the East, was predominantly Russian, a heritage of the industries that sprang up there under the old tsarist regime. But the peasantry, which formed the vast majority of the population, was Ukrainian. Bolshevik leader V.I. Lenin stressed the need of the Soviet Union to grant the Ukrainians and other nations that had been oppressed in the tsarist “prison house of peoples” the right to self-determination—i.e., the right to separate.
Based in western Ukraine, which had been part of the Habsburg empire, reactionary Ukrainian nationalism allied first with German imperialism under the Kaiser and then with Pilsudski’s right-wing regime in Poland, and later still with Nazi Germany. Following the defeat of Western-backed counterrevolutionary armies in the Russian Civil War, a Ukrainian state based on the eastern half of the country was formed as part of a federation of workers states, becoming in 1922 a founding member of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Western Ukraine, which remained under the rule of Poland, was integrated into the Soviet Union following the Red Army’s smashing of Nazi Germany.
The early Bolshevik regime assiduously defended the rights of oppressed nationalities and peoples. However, with the triumph and consolidation of the Stalinist bureaucracy beginning in 1923-24, Great Russian chauvinism once again began to flourish, resulting in abuses of sometimes historic proportions, as in the mass expulsion of Crimean Tatars, Chechens and others from their homelands toward the end of WWII. Retrograde nationalism was nurtured by the Stalinist dogma of “socialism in one country”—a flat rejection of the Marxist program of world socialist revolution that animated the Bolsheviks of 1917. Nevertheless, the policies of the bureaucracy had a contradictory impact. Full employment, education, medical care for all and other social gains undercut nationalist hatreds. Integrated into a socialized economy with central planning, Ukraine underwent substantial industrialization and development.
The restoration of capitalism destroyed these gains, throwing the working people of the former Soviet republics into social chaos, nationalist bloodletting and economic disaster. Industrial employment in Ukraine fell by 50 percent between 1991 and 2001 while wages in remaining jobs plummeted. Yet even under conditions of economic depression, eastern Ukraine produces a disproportionate share of the country’s wealth. For example, the Donetsk region, a coal mining center, accounts for only 10 percent of the population of Ukraine but some 20 percent of its gross domestic product.
The breakup of the USSR revealed considerable interpenetration and assimilation of peoples as well as interdependent economic enterprises that had been geared to a bureaucratically centralized planned economy. This is the situation underlying eastern Ukraine’s continuing ties to the Russian economy. The Putin regime’s strategic interest in eastern Ukraine is highlighted by the region’s role in producing military goods for Russia, from helicopter engines and hydraulic systems for fighter jets to air-to-air missiles.
The sharp fall in jobs, state benefits and living standards after the counterrevolution has rekindled among many workers nostalgic memories of the Soviet Union, when working people had a decent life. An Al Jazeera article (30 April) titled “Eastern Ukrainian Miners Yearn for Russia, Bygone Soviet Era” describes one such worker, who identifies himself as Russian. Currently unemployed, he had risked his life toiling in one of the many illegal mines that sprang up after the collapse of the collectivized economy. While favoring Donetsk becoming part of Russia, the worker said, “I don’t want it to be like Russia. I want it to be like the past, the USSR,” where “I was getting payment even for my learning.”
Elements of working class consciousness can be seen in workers’ identification with the USSR as well as in their hatred for both pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian oligarchs, several of whom are in top national and regional governmental posts. However, the working class has not emerged as an independent political factor.
Soviet nostalgia is often colored by the nationalism that was fostered by the Kremlin Stalinist bureaucracy and is currently expressed in virulently reactionary form by various “Communist” remnants of the old regime. What must be understood is that the enormous gains produced by the Soviet Union’s planned economy were betrayed by the privileged Stalinist bureaucracy. Faced with unrelenting Western economic and military pressure, Stalinist misrule led ultimately to the collapse of the Soviet Union and East Germany and their reversion to capitalism.