Ukraine: The Important Back Story
The socialist David Mandel, who teaches political science at the Université du Québec à Montréal, and has been involved in labor education in the Ukraine, has an important essay (originally published in August 2014) out in the socialist online publication, The B u l l e t
In the essay, he argues that Russian president Vladimir Putin made a strategic error in annexing the Crimea, as it has inflamed Ukrainians in the central and western parts of the country. It certainly could be debated for a long period as to whether Putin made the right move with the annexation. However, that is not the point in the essay that I want to bring into primary focus here.
Mandel's essay quite simply provides the best background/summary information for understanding the conflict in Ukraine. He writes:
Ukraine is a deeply divided society – along lines of language, culture, historical identity, ethnicity, religious affiliation, attitudes to Russia, as well as real and perceived economic interests. Since Ukraine became independent in 1991, these divisions have been manipulated and fostered by corrupt economic and political élites with the aim of distracting popular attention for their criminal activities and to gain advantage in intra-élite competition. This manipulation, on the background of widespread poverty and economic insecurity, has prevented popular forces from mobilizing to oppose this oppressive ruling class, the so-called ‘oligarchs’, who have run the economy into the ground while fantastically enriching themselves. Since independence, Ukraine has lost over 13 per cent of its population, down to 45 million. Of those, several million are working abroad as cheap labour in Russia and the EU.
About half of Ukraine's population speaks Ukrainian in everyday life; the other half – Russian; and practically everyone can speak both languages well enough. The three western, overwhelmingly ukrainophone, regions joined the rest of Ukraine in the 1940s after two centuries under oppressive Austro-Hungarian, then Polish, rule. The southern and eastern parts first became part of Ukraine at the end of the Russian civil war in 1920. Until 1991, Ukraine had never existed as a state, except for a very brief period during the civil war.
The population of the western regions is deeply nationalistic; and at the centre of that nationalism at present is a profound fear, mixed with hatred, of Russia and, to varying degrees, of Russians. The eastern and southern regions, mostly russophone, have strong cultural and ethnic affinities, as well as political sympathies and economic ties, with Russia. The situation in the centre is mixed. Historical memory plays a big role in the divisions: the heroes of the west collaborated with the German occupation in World War II and participated in its crimes; the heroes of the east and south fought against fascism and for the Soviet Union. In fact, there is hardly any major historical event or figure going back centuries upon which the two poles agree. There are also economic interests: the east is more industrial and closely integrated with the Russian economy, by far Ukraine's leading trading partner; the western is dominated by small towns and is more agrarian.
These differences express themselves in opposing political positions, in which irrational fears play a not insignificant role. The population of the west, with some support in the centre, has generally been more active politically and has sought to impose its culture, which it considers the only truly Ukrainian, on the rest of the country. People from the western regions constituted a disproportionate part of the Maidan protesters. Opinion surveys consistently show the Ukrainian population to be split on major issues, although most, both east and west, have perceived the successive governments as corrupt and dominated by oligarchs. The major issue of contention has been the legitimacy of the central government. The one formed after Victor Yanukovych's overthrow has strong support in the west and, to a significant degree, also in the centre, which has seen a nationalistic upsurge; the population in the east and south widely despises and fears the government, which it considers illegitimate.
What was Maidan?
The initial issue in the Maidan protest was the fate of an economic agreement that the then President Yanukovych had been negotiating with the European Union. Yanukovych, who was identified with the russophone east and south, decided (wisely in my view) to suspend the negotiations and accept Russia's offer of a $15-billion loan. But when he resorted to repression against the protesters, the protest was transformed into a protest movement against the government itself, its repressive, corrupt nature. Armed neo-fascist elements from the West increasingly became involved, further radicalizing the protest, attacking police, occupying government buildings, and finally convincing Yanukovych to flee on February 21.
A provisional government was then formed by not altogether constitutional means. It consisted exclusively of politicians identified with the western, nationalist regions and included several neo-fascists. Politicians identified with the west, including some oligarchs, were put in charge of eastern regions, whose population widely viewed the new government as hostile.
Copying the Maidan protest and earlier actions in the western regions that had been directed against Yanukovych's government, groups of local Donbass citizens already in February began to occupy government buildings, calling for a referendum on the region's autonomy and possibly its secession and annexation to Russia. These groups were initially unarmed, nor were they for the most part separatist. As their compatriots in the west had done earlier against Yanukovych, they were demanding local autonomy as a measure of protection against a hostile central government.
Kiev's reaction only confirmed the worst fears and prejudices of the Donbass population. Under the impression of Russia's annexation of Crimea and spurred on by its own fervent nationalism, the new government in Kiev made no serious effort to reach out to the population of the east. Instead, almost immediately it declared the protesters “terrorists” and launched a so-called “anti-terrorist operation” against them. There was no genuine desire to negotiate, but to crush militarily. And since the Ukrainian army was a mess and had little taste for fighting its own people, the government created and armed a National Guard, consisting of poorly trained volunteers that included ultra-nationalists and neo-fascists. As if that were not enough to confirm the fears of the easterners, some 45 anti-government protesters were massacred in Odessa on May 2, a crime for which Kiev blamed the protesters themselves, as well as unidentified Russian provocateurs.
None of this changed fundamentally after the presidential elections of early May. President Petro Poroshenko has also made no serious effort to negotiate an end to the conflict. The indiscriminate shelling of civilian centres in Donbass by the government only confirmed its illegitimate, alien nature in the eyes of the local population.
There is not much that is known for sure – at least by myself – about the relations between the local population and the armed insurgents in the Donbass. Moreover, these relations undoubtedly evolved over time. But it is clear that the insurgents were, and still are, in their majority local people and that, at least until relatively recently, they enjoyed varying degrees of sympathy among the population, most of whom, however, did not want to separate but only a measure of self-rule. I imagine that today the local population mostly wishes only for an end to the fighting and a measure of physical security.
The insurgency itself underwent radicalization over time, especially with the influx from Russia of Russian nationalists. In any case, although the government in Kiev has made an offer of amnesty to those who have not committed serious crimes, the militias no doubt fear only the worst if they were to surrender.
The Central Government
Ukraine's political regime differs from Russia's in that in Ukraine the oligarchs dominate the state and the mass media. In Russia the regime is ‘Bonapartist’, that is, the political élite dominates the oligarchs, even while serving their interests. That is essentially why there has been more political pluralism in the Ukraine. Whether that has been more beneficial to Ukraine's working-class is another question. As for the economic and social situations, Ukraine is basically Russia but without oil and gas.
A glance at the political career of president Poroshenko, billionaire owner of a confectionary empire and auto plants, offers some idea of the nature of the regime. Poroshenko was a founding member of the Party of Regions in 2000, the political machine that eventually brought Yanukovych to power in 2010. But a year later, Poroshenko left the party to become a leading financial backer of Our Ukraine, a party closely identified with the western regions and with Ukrainian nationalism. He backed the so-called Orange Revolution at the end of 2004 that brought to power Viktor Yushchenko, a staunch pro-West Ukrainian nationalist. Poroshenko became his Foreign Minister, advocating NATO membership (a position rejected by a strong majority of the population). But he lost his job in 2010 when Yanukovych won the presidential elections. Poroshenko nevertheless returned in 2012 to serve Yanukovych as Minister of Trade and Development. But he left that post after eight months to return to parliament as an independent. In short, this is the career of an inveterate political opportunist, who, like the rest of his class, subscribes to the Russian adage: “Where my fortune lies, there lies my heart.”
Poroshenko, to the extent he has principles, does not belong to the more extreme wing of Ukrainian nationalism, although he has called the Donbass insurgents “gangs of animals.” (Prime Minister Yatsenyuk, beloved by Western governments, has called them “subhumans.”) But in any case, Poroshenko shares power with a cabinet and parliament that include extreme right-wing elements. And because of the army's weakness, he has had to rely heavily on ultra-nationalist paramilitary forces to prosecute the war. For example, the cease-fire, to which he agreed to on June 21 and apparently wanted to prolong while pursuing negotiations, was cut short after a demonstration by so-called “volunteeer” battalions, recruited largely from ultra-nationalist far-right elements. Then there are people like the multi-billionaire governor of Dnepropetrovsk region, Igor Kolomoiskii, who payrolls his own army, the Dnipro Battalion; or the increasingly popular parliamentary deputy, the right-wing populist thug, Oleg Lyashko, who has personally commanded volunteer battalions in the Donbass. Poroshenko also has to consider the upsurge of nationalist sentiment in the wake of Crimea's annexation and the massive propaganda campaign against Russia in the oligarch-controlled media that has gone well beyond the typically nationalist elements of Ukrainian society. Finally, the war and national emergency are needed to distract popular attention from very harsh austerity measures that are really only in their first stages.
Although the conflict is fundamentally a civil war, external forces have played a significant role. The “West” (U.S., EU, NATO) bears a heavy responsibility for its unflinching support and encouragement of the Ukrainian government in its pursuit of an exclusively pro-Western political and economic orientation. In view of Ukraine's deep internal divisions, that policy is fatal to the integrity of the state and the peaceful development of the society. Moreover, from the moment the internal divisions assumed the form of an armed confrontation, the West has unflinchingly supported both the actions and the propaganda of the Kiev government. That propaganda portrays the Russian government as solely responsible for the conflict and is silent about Kiev's own intransigence, its serious war crimes against the non-combatant population of Donbass and the serious economic suffering it is imposing on the entire population.
An analysis of Western interests and motives is beyond the scope of this presentation. But it is quite obvious that since the fall of the USSR, the U.S., with more or less active support from Europe, has followed a course aimed at maximally limiting Russia's geopolitical influence and at surrounding it with unfriendly states. Despite solemn promises made to Mikhail Gorbachev, these states have been integrated into NATO, from which Russia is excluded. Where integration into NATO has not been possible or desirable, regime change has been pursued. That has been the West's policy in Ukraine.