Over half a year of convulsive political crises in Ukraine have brought the country to the brink of civil war. They have also dramatically shaken up relations among the imperialist powers – the U.S., the European Union and Russia.
Despite the importance of the events, it is impossible from afar to be certain of everything that is going on: on both sides of the struggle, far-right wing and even fascist forces are posing as democrats and even socialists, capitalist oligarchs are trying to mobilize workers to support their interests, and the rival imperialists are sponsoring proxy forces who nonetheless proclaim their independence from the great powers. Meanwhile reporters on the ground mostly present only one side of each story.
In particular, the conflict has produced grossly different assessments by the international left. Some hailed the mass “Euromaidan” movement in Kiev as wholly progressive and democratic despite the facts that it was led by right-wing bourgeois forces who favored closer economic relations with the European Union, and that the overthrow of the pro-Russia prime minister Yanukovych was spearheaded by far-right and outright fascist fighters. Others denounced the mass movement in Kiev as nothing but a reactionary movement culminating in a fascist coup sponsored by the U.S., ignoring the fact that hundreds of thousands had joined the movement to protest the Yanukovych government’s violence against peaceful protests and support for corrupt oligarchs.
More recently, the latter leftists have characterized the anti-government forces who seized public buildings, blocked highways and promoted a separatist referendum in Eastern Ukraine as anti-fascist popular heroes, overlooking the presence of openly pro-imperialist Russian chauvinists and neo-fascists among their leaders; others denounced them as simply Russian agents seeking to further dismantle the country despite evidence of some broader sympathy for their resistance to the post-Yanukovych right-wing government in Kiev.
These different assessments reflect the bitter divide within the country. Deadly skirmishes have taken place between the militants on the pro-Russian or “anti-Maidan” side and forces of the central government in Kiev. There have been pitched battles in cities, including the massacre by pro-government forces of anti-Maidan activists in Odessa. As far as we can tell, the most aggressive forces on both sides have been reactionaries, including fascists. But there has also been a democratic and working-class aspect to some of the protests, both the earlier demonstrations in Kiev against the former government and the ongoing actions against the current government in the East.
The common mass sentiment against the disastrous economic policies of one corrupt oligarchic government after another points to the only genuine solution to the Ukrainian crisis: working-class unity against the ruling capitalists and their imperialist backers on both sides. But for the most part the conflict has only deepened the ethnic and regional differences within the Ukrainian working class, which remains subjected to the leadership of one or another of the capitalist oligarchs, party leaders and far-right gangs representing either Ukrainian or Russian nationalism. Ukraine is divided linguistically and ethnically between the largely Ukrainian-speaking and agrarian West, where many workers migrate to East European countries like Poland for jobs and where pro-EU sentiment dominated; and the mainly Russian-speaking and more industrial East and South. There are, however, Ukrainian speakers and Russian speakers throughout the country, and many people are bilingual. The capitalist system’s slide toward depression has devastated Ukraine’s economy and is driving the country’s fratricidal warfare, but that is a symptom of the ruling class’s weakness. The only alternative is for Ukraine’s working class to lead the rest of the country’s exploited and oppressed masses in the overthrow of capitalism as part of an international revolutionary struggle against the imperialist system. Necessary for victory will be a vanguard revolutionary party that is prepared to unmask all the reactionary chauvinist forces on both sides of the current conflicts and chart a course of independent working-class struggle.
The background to the crisis is that Ukraine has been the victim of oppression by great powers throughout its modern history. The current events there are framed by its continued exploitation and domination by imperialist states. Since the collapse of Stalinist statified capitalism and the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, Ukraine has enjoyed formal independence. But its succession of oligarchical governments have looted the country and have alternately sought support from the West or Russia in return for granting the imperialists access.
Ukraine was once known as the “breadbasket of Europe” on account of its abundant wheat production, and its agriculture is still a potentially rich resource. But it needs major investments in equipment and infrastructure to regain its past productivity, which capitalist financiers are unwilling to provide unless the land, which is largely state-owned, is privatized. That would benefit oligarchs, not the agricultural or other workers. There is also a major mining and manufacturing sector in the East of the country, where the heavy industry dates from the Soviet period and is now largely obsolete by international standards. The oligarchs who captured and looted the country’s industrial enterprises were formerly bureaucrats tied to the overall Soviet economy, and this industrial region depends heavily on Russian energy sources and Russian markets.
Many Ukrainians have a historical memory of Stalin’s murderous policies in the early 1930’s: Ukraine was starved of food output so that it could be sold abroad to build up Soviet industry. The Great Purges later in the decade that wiped out the last vestiges of the Soviet workers’ state created in the 1917 revolution were especially harsh in Ukraine. The brutality of the Stalinist state drove some Ukrainians to the Nazi side when Germany invaded in 1941.
Russia today is hardly the superpower rival to the United States that the Stalinist USSR was in the years following the Second World War; Obama recently denigrated it as a “regional power” only. But Russia remains an imperialist exploiter in the global capitalist system: it profits from and enforces the subjugation and super-exploitation of oppressed countries in Eastern Europe and especially Central Asia, where its military predominance backs up major economic interests.
Russian imperialism declined after the fall of Stalinism and the break-up of the USSR, but it remained bloody even under the weak post-Stalinist ruler Yeltsin in the 1990’s, prosecuting devastating wars against the rebellious Chechen people. Its renewed aggression accelerated at the turn of the century, when rising oil prices rose brought Russia’s rulers new financial wealth and Putin replaced Yeltsin. In 2008 the Georgian regime tried to provoke a proxy war between Russia and the U.S. by invading the separatist region of South Ossetia and then begging the U.S. to defend it against Russia’s counterattack, but the U.S. was too tied down in Iraq and Afghanistan to challenge Russia in its backyard. With his recent annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean territory, Putin has replayed his success over Georgia, choosing a fight the West could not afford to join militarily
In addition to its seizure of Crimea and military threats in the East, Russian imperialism has for years kept Ukraine in thrall economically. Several times it has raised gas and oil prices or threatened to withhold supplies entirely. It has tried to use Ukraine’s energy debt to take over the pipelines across Ukraine through which Russia exports gas to Western Europe. On top of the $30 billion debt that Ukraine already owed to Russia, in late 2013 it took another emergency loan of $3billion with special clauses that stipulates that if the total volume of Ukrainian state-guaranteed debt exceeds 60 percent of its annual GDP, then Russia can demand repayment on an accelerated schedule – or if it is unable to make such payments, force default and cut off the supply of gas.
Since then, Russia has pushed Ukraine further towards default. Effective April 1, it raised by 80 percent the price of natural gas imports into Ukraine. Russia’s union of milk producers is asking for a ban on Ukrainian dairy products, and Russian steel companies are pressing for protectionist measures against Ukrainian ore. Russia also threatened to take legal measures against Poland, Slovakia, and Romania for sending gas in the reverse direction on the pipelines to help Ukraine, a move which Russia says breaks their contracts with Russia’s Gazprom company. This has already meant chaos for Ukraine’s economy. The Ukrainian currency, the hryvnia, is in free fall, losing more than 35 percent of its value against the dollar this year. The central bank nearly doubled its overnight interest rate to 14.5 percent from 7.5 percent. GDP is on track to fall by 10 percent this year.
Rivaling Russia is the U.S.-led NATO military alliance and the European Union (EU). The Western imperialist ruling classes are eager to limit Russia’s military and economic power; for two decades they have advanced the borders of NATO and the EU eastward towards Russia, contrary to the unwritten promise made by the first president Bush to Soviet leader Gorbachev. In 2008 Ukraine proposed to take steps toward affiliation with NATO, a move endorsed by U.S. presidents Bush II and Obama. NATO backed off after Russia’s Georgia war, facing opposition from France and Germany. One reason surely is that the NATO treaty makes an attack on any member nation an attack against all, and NATO could not defend Ukraine from Russia using conventional weapons.
The Western pressure on Ukraine comes chiefly in the economic sphere. Like many countries, Ukraine has been subject since independence to demands from the International Monetary Fund to reduce budgets, cut wages, pensions, social services and state subsidies for energy – in return for loans to keep the economy afloat and pay Ukraine’s debts to Russia. Most recently, the Western imperialists, in order to deepen their exploitation of Ukraine, promoted the post-Yanukovych regime – which has agreed to a new deal for loans from the IMF which imposes greater austerity on the Ukrainian masses. The imperialists’ aim is to extract debt-servicing profits and open the country’s poorly paid working class and resources to more direct exploitation by Western capital.
While calls for outside intervention from pro-Russian and pro-Western politicians inside Ukraine escalate, the U.S. has insisted it will not arm its Ukrainian allies, although it has moved token numbers of troops and military equipment to NATO countries like Poland and the Baltic countries bordering Russia. Russia has built up a much larger military force along its Ukrainian border but claims it has no responsibility for the armed militants in Eastern Ukraine. In early May Putin said he would support Ukraine-wide elections on May 25 rather than the anti-Kiev referendum on sovereignty in the East on May 11. This may signal a de facto effort by the imperialist powers to divide influence over Ukraine between them rather than encourage further moves toward civil war and the inevitable heating up of international hostility that would follow.
One result of the rival imperialist interventions in and squabbling over Ukraine has been to halt the creeping Western approach to Russia’s borders. Russia is unlikely to challenge any time soon the NATO membership of Poland and the Baltic states; likewise, the West will undoubtedly have to live with Russia’s takeover of Crimea. And Ukraine will not join NATO; if it survives the present turmoil, it will most likely become a buffer state whose exploitation is shared by Russia and the West.
While it does not have the global reach of the USSR, Russia is re-establishing itself as a power that has to be reckoned with in the overall imperialist jockeying for influence and resources. In addition to Crimea and Ukraine, Russia has stood up against the U.S. over Iran and Syria. The U.S., despite its huge military advantage, has shown itself unable to keep the lids on all the cauldrons of the Middle East, the Asian Pacific and now Eastern Europe. The “New World Order” that U.S. leaders boasted of in the aftermath of the fall of the USSR is becoming more disorderly and less hegemonic.
The crisis broke out when a few thousand pro-Western activists converged last November at Independence Square (Maidan) in the center of Kiev, the capital, protesting the Yanukovych government’s decision to suspend the process of integration of Ukraine into the EU – hence the nickname “Euromaidan.” When the regime’s special police forces and snipers cracked down on the protesters, over a hundred people were killed (including a dozen policemen), and the protests grew massively, with hundreds of thousands rallying to oppose an already unpopular government holding onto power by means of murderous repression. Public buildings around the Kiev Maidan were occupied, a tent city was erected, and protests spread to other squares and other cities. Right-wing Ukrainian nationalists, including fascists, played a growing role.
The masses of people who joined the protests in Kiev and beyond did not all do so in support of the leaders’ pro-EU aims. The government had become deeply unpopular for overseeing a continued fall in the masses’ living standards, just like the previous pro-Western government of Viktor Yuschenko. While a significant minority were committed right-wingers, most protesters were not. Many held illusions that joining the EU would mean prosperity, rather than the austerity that European imperialism actually inflicts on poorer member-countries like Greece, Latvia and Ireland as well as greater democratic freedoms. But these protesters did not raise anti-capitalist demands, and control remained in the hands of the pro-Europe political leaders and the oligarchs behind them.
There was certainly nothing progressive in the Yanukovych regime – like every post-Stalinist government, it enforced private capitalist exploitation with harsh repression. Nor could revolutionaries support the pro-Western demands of the Maidan movement’s leaders. However, it was necessary to oppose the regime’s attacks on peaceful protests in order to defend the masses’ democratic rights and convince them of the need for a perspective of internationalist working-class struggle. Revolutionaries should have attended the protests in order to resist the pro-EU, pro-capitalist and chauvinist political messages of the reactionary leaders.
As the protests continued, the ruling class was torn between Yanukovych and rival politicians, all supported by oligarchs. The top capitalists finally decided in February that the best way to protect their wealth and power was to abandon Yanukovych. The Kiev parliament replaced him with a pro-Western figure, Yatsenyuk, whose government included the far-right Svoboda party (which was given the security ministry) and was backed by the openly fascist Right Sector.
These moves were welcomed by Washington, which sought to take advantage of the regime change and secure the most cooperative government possible. The massive protest movement that drew on widespread grievances against repression and economic misery thus found itself mobilized behind a pro-austerity ruling-class faction and other right-wing forces. Some on the left labeled this replacement of one capitalist regime by another a “revolution,” but the new regime can offer the Ukrainian masses only more misery, this time more directly at the hands of the International Monetary Fund and other agents of Western imperialism. It must be opposed by all revolutionaries.
In response to the Western moves and Ukraine’s disarray, Russia invaded and annexed Crimea, a largely Russian-speaking peninsula that is home to Russia’s Black Sea fleet. The takeover was carried out in the name of the right of self-determination of the Crimean people. But despite its ratification by a referendum, it was an act of colonialist annexation. Socialists and working-class people should oppose such seizures of territory – the right wing in Ukraine cannot be allowed to pose as the only defenders against an imperialist military force.
The slogan raised by some on the international left, “Self-determination for Crimea” (that is, for Crimea as a whole with its Russian-speaking majority), is in effect an endorsement of an imperialist conquest. Its proponents overlook that Leninists defend the right of self-determination for oppressed peoples, not oppressors; that right does not apply to imperialist seizures of territory.
Though a majority of Crimea’s population is Russian (the result of efforts to Russify the area that began under Tsarism) and it is likely that a majority supported the region’s incorporation into the Russian state, the oppressed Tatar people who are indigenous to Crimea and survived Stalin’s attempted genocide understandably oppose Russian rule and favored remaining in the Ukrainian state. “Self-determination for Crimea” meant supporting the right of the Russian majority to impose the rule of an imperialist oppressor upon the Tatars. Our opposition to the supposed right of Crimea to self-determination is consistent with the traditional revolutionary opposition to self-determination for Northern Ireland, with its British-backed Protestant majority, and self-determination for Israel, which has a Jewish majority as a result of colonialist ethnic cleansing.
Thus when the takeover of Crimea was in progress, we in the League for the Revolutionary Party took the position of siding with Ukrainian forces that might come into conflict with the Russian troops; we favor the defeat of imperialists in any clash with an oppressed country. By now, however, the seizure is an accomplished fact; we are not for a military effort by Ukraine to retake it, since the outbreak of war would only make organizing united working-class struggle across Ukraine’s ethnic divisions more difficult and would probably draw in more direct Western imperialist intervention. We also oppose calls by Ukrainian nationalist reactionaries that Kiev shut off water and electricity supplies to Crimea, a measure that would only victimize the Crimean people, not their imperialist rulers. The U.S. and the EU have imposed economic sanctions against Russia, but so far this has been a minor inconvenience. Despite rhetorical bluster, the West will accept the takeover of Crimea, only warning that such violations of “international law” (violations which the U.S. commits routinely) must not be extended.
The struggle over Crimea, however, is not over. The most oppressed group in the region is the Crimean Tatars. The Tatars initially expressed a wish not to be governed by Russia, under whose rulers (both Tsars and Stalin) they suffered near-genocidal oppression. As a largely Muslim nationality, they also know how Russia under both Yeltsin and Putin was willing to use total destruction to defeat the independence of Chechnya, another Muslim nation. But given the annexation, they now seek full minority rights and autonomy in Crimea, plus the right of all exiled Tatars to return to their historical homeland. Their democratic rights are indeed being threatened under Russian rule and must be defended. Tatar leaders have been told they will be prosecuted if they organize protests against the policies of the new Crimean regime under Russia, and their chief civil organization, the Mejlis, will be banned. According to the United Nations commission for refugees, ten thousand people have fled Crimea since the annexation, most of whom are Tatars, “either because of direct threats or out of fear of insecurity or persecution.”
Now the task of fighting Russia’s imperialist impositions rests primarily on the Russian working class, which has been increasingly restive since 2011. But Russia’s workers must see through the nationalism their rulers invoke. To break the bonds of loyalty with ruling class, revolutionaries must oppose the annexation of Crimea and the forced incorporation of Chechnya, the rest of the North Caucasus and other areas into the Russian Federation.
In early April several groups of anti-Kiev militants, many of them armed, seized public buildings in major East Ukrainian cities. They demanded autonomy within Ukraine via a referendum like that in Crimea, although the leaders pretty clearly wanted armed aid from Russia and possibly annexation. Local police generally hesitated to intervene or have sided with the rebels, and initially small central government forces were sent to the East to confront them.
These events have also been termed a “revolution” by some on the left. But unlike in Crimea, where the Russian annexation was very popular among the Russian-speaking majority, reports suggest that the population in the East is far less enthusiastic about separating and joining Russia.. The public demonstrations in support of the Eastern rebels were far smaller than those earlier in Kiev; but as with the Maidan protests, government attempts to crush them by force generated more support for them. A key reason for mistrusting the Kiev government was the vote in the Ukrainian parliament to overturn the law allowing scope for minority languages like Russian, even though the prime minister vetoed the revocation.
The organization that led the Eastern takeovers calls itself the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR). When this group seized several floors of a building in the city of Donetsk, the center of Ukraine’s coal and steel region, its leader was interviewed by a New York Times reporter and claimed to represent “the working class, not the bourgeoisie”; he also declared his loyalty to the defunct Soviet Union. But little else about the DPR could be called working-class or socialist. Pavel Gubarev, a pro-Russian separatist from Donetsk who declared himself a “people’s governor,” had been a member of a fascistic organization called Russian National Unity. And Aleksandr Borodai, a figure with a long fascistic record in Russia, was named prime minister of the DPR.
In the spirit of such reactionary leadership, counter-protesters for Ukrainian unity have been violently repressed by pro-Russia thugs, and reporters have also been abducted and beaten. The anti-Kiev reactionaries, along with Putin’s regime in Russia, are hailed by practically all the fascist or near-fascist organizations in Europe, from Golden Dawn in Greece to the National Front in France.
(There is some confusion between the names “Donetsk People’s Republic” and “Donetsk Republic” without the “People’s.” The DPR’s self-proclaimed chairman, Denis Pushilin, a main organizer of the May 11 referendum for separation, has posed in front of a banner with the shorter name “Donetsk Republic” – and which also features the double-headed eagle symbolic of Russian tsarism. The two organizations are very likely the same, and the symbol indicates that its political views are reactionary, not working-class.)
The Ukrainian government sent small military forces to confront what it called “the terrorists,” initially without success as many soldiers refused to fight or went over to the rebel side. Later attempts, with likely participation from Right Sector elements, caused some deaths but did not retake occupied buildings.
Rhetoric from both Russia and the West escalated as the conflict in the East grew. Still, it did not appear that Putin was seeking further annexations. Taking over rebellious provinces could create unrest elsewhere in Russia, where economic conditions also are perilous. Moreover, such a step would strengthen Western influence in the rest of Ukraine, thus further encroaching on Russia’s doorstep – Russia needs Ukraine as a buffer towards the West, not as a conquest. Further, Russian annexation would compel the Western imperialists to impose more stringent sanctions and could lead to vicious economic retaliation on both sides.
The West, despite its aggressive talk, has not been eager to get more deeply involved militarily. Although the Pentagon pointed to Russia’s massing of military force near its border with Ukraine, the U.S. has not shared detailed information along these lines with the Ukrainian government it is supposedly allied with. And while the U.S. seeks to widen the sanctions on Russia, German capitalists are opposed, because of their close economic links with Russia.
Reports from Eastern Ukraine have presented widely divergent interpretations of who the separatist activists are, ranging from locals opposed to the ouster of Yanukovych and fearful of the new regime in Kiev, to “green men” in uniforms without insignia belonging to the Russian armed forces. According to one seemingly balanced Western account, “one persistent mystery has been the identity and affiliations of the militiamen, who have pressed the confrontation between Russia and the West into its latest bitter phase.” This report suggested that the rebels “appear to be Ukrainians but, like many in the region, have deep ties to and affinity for Russia. They are veterans of the Soviet, Ukrainian or Russian Armies, and some have families on the other side of the border. Theirs is a tangled mix of identities and loyalties.” And “while the fighters share a passionate distrust of Ukraine’s government and the Western powers that support it, they disagree among themselves about their ultimate goals. They argue about whether Ukraine should redistribute power via greater federalization or whether the region should be annexed by Russia.”
One additional reason for East Ukraine workers’ attraction to Russia is that wages in Russia are higher than in Ukraine. The low wage level is one reason Western imperialism wants greater access to Ukraine – but the same is true for Russian imperialism. Eastern Ukrainian workers may well feel hostile to the Kiev government – as should all Ukrainian workers. That sentiment will surely become more widespread once the austerity deal the Kiev government is negotiating with the EU and IMF takes full effect. The regime’s promised shock therapy measures include a 50 percent hike in gas prices, increased taxes, privatization of the public energy corporation, freezing of salaries and pensions for civil servants and the dismissal of 10 percent of them.
From what we have seen, outbreaks of class struggle have been few in comparison to nationalist outbreaks, but they have not been absent. On April 22, a strike broke out in the coal mines of Krasnodon, in Lugansk province near the Russian border. Two thousand miners struck the firm owned by Riant Akhmetov, reportedly Ukraine’s richest oligarch, demanding higher wages and better working conditions. Akhmetov had been a supporter of Yanukovych but was one of the oligarchs who switched sides opportunistically. Even though the miners’ strike did not raise political demands, it posed an enormous threat to the oligarchic ruling class. It was after all the Ukrainian miners whose struggles in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s played a key role in weakening the state capitalist ruling class in the USSR.
In general, as best as we can tell from various reports, the anti-Kiev activists are of several views, which of course overlap and are not always separable: some oppose Kiev for its economic and social policies: the IMF austerity deal, imposition of oligarchs as regional governors, the language issue; some support Ukraine becoming a federal state with regional autonomy; others support a separate republic or annexation by Russia.
The starting point of all revolutionary socialist politics is the defense of the working class against attack and the promotion of independent working-class organization and struggle. But in circumstances where rival forces are attempting to channel the grievances of working-class and oppressed people into support for the reactionary Kiev government or for the imperialist Russian state and threatening to plunge Ukraine into civil war, the road to independent working-class struggle is fraught with dangers. Under such conditions, especially from afar, revolutionaries can only propose broad guidelines for struggle to be adapted to any concrete situation:
For weeks the Kiev regime did not seriously attack the rebel occupations, undoubtedly due to the weak state of the Ukrainian military after years of looting of government funds and the fact that many soldiers favored the demands of the protesters and passively or willingly went over to their side. But the violence gradually escalated, reaching its most horrific level on May 2, when a massacre took place in Odessa, a city in which are present activists on both factions. At least 40 people were killed, most of them in a fire in the Trade Union Building that had been occupied by people on the anti-Kiev side.
Accounts of that day’s events vary greatly; as best as we can piece them together there were attacks from both sides. The fighting began against a march of over 1000 soccer fans, supporters of both Odessa’s home team and the visiting team from Kharkiv. The marchers, many of whom carried yellow and blue Ukrainian flags, were attacked by several hundred pro-Russian thugs with guns, wearing ski masks and helmets. There was some return fire, but four marchers were killed by gunfire and a dozen more wounded. News of the attack spread to the soccer stadium, and running battles took place around the city. Revenge-minded crowd of soccer fans went after and destroyed a pro-Russian encampment outside the Trade Union House. Many from the camp took refuge inside the five-story building, and then the anti-Russia crowd, probably now led by Right Sector fascists, hurled gasoline-filled “Molotov cocktail” bottles into the building, starting the deadly conflagration that killed at least 38 people. Some trying to escape were beaten or killed by anti-Russia demonstrators. In both the shootings and burning, the police reportedly stood by and allowed the lopsided violence to take place.
There has been much speculation about the specifics of these events. Pro-Russia leaders blame the Kiev government for a deliberate slaughter; some in the government claim it was a provocation by Russia to legitimize a military invasion. Yulia Timoshenko, a former prime minister who had been jailed by Yanukovych and is now a presidential candidate, went so far as praise the slaughter at the Trade Union House and congratulate the killers. We condemn the massacre, and likewise all the violent attacks against either “pro-Maidan” or “anti-Maidan” demonstrators. They only contribute to the polarization of the masses of an oppressed country under reactionary leadership.
In addition to relatively minor skirmishes, there were also major losses of life in several subsequent events. In Mariupol, a port city in the Donetsk oblast, the Ukrainian military attacked a police station held by rebels on May 9; the number of deaths reported ranged from 5 to 20 to even 100. On May 22, sixteen Ukraine soldiers were killed at a checkpoint at the village of Blagodatnoe in the Donetsk region, but reports differ as to who killed them. The majority of reports say it was done by forces of the People’s Republic of Donetsk, and one particular outfit claims responsibility; but some on the left insist the perpetrators were pro-Kiev fascists, who shot the soldiers because they refused to fire on local residents.
As advertised in advance, referendums on the status of Donetsk and Lugansk Oblasts (provinces on Ukraine’s eastern border with Russia), took place on May 11 in some cities and towns. In Donetsk the wording to be voted on was: “Do you support the act of the Declaration of the Independence of the Donetsk People’s Republic?” Some voters took this to mean autonomy, others secession from Ukraine. But after the vote, the organizers claimed an overwhelming majority, declared their “republics” independent and immediately asked for them to be annexed by Russia.
The voting was makeshift at best. The atmosphere of armed violence precluded electoral campaigning by opponents of the resolution, and in one city, Krasnoarmeisk, Ukrainian security forces shot people trying to vote. It is not at all clear what fraction of residents voted: ballot locations were few; opponents of the rebels were afraid to declare their views. Western reporters on the scene described multiple cases of people voting more than once as well as of non-residents voting. In any case, Putin had already proposed postponement of the referendum and did not take up the organizers’ request for annexation; and no country, not even Russia, has recognized the newly declared republics.
One tragicomic outcome of the referendum was that the socialist group Borotba (Struggle), which supported the referendum and recognizes the Donetsk People’s Republic, was compelled to protest when the leaders of the DPR promulgated a constitution which declared that private property would be preserved and that the official state religion would be that of the Russian Orthodox Church. Borotba is at best terribly naive: what else could socialists expect from an outfit that presents itself under Tsarist symbols?
The shock of the Odessa massacre and the maraudings by the Donetsk militants produced at least one report of proletarian class sentiment among Eastern Ukraine workers. This is the “Appeal of the Kryviy Rih Basin miners to the workers of Europe,” which comes as close as we have seen to calling for working-class unity across the country against the ruling-class oligarchs. It says in part:
The attention of the world community is currently focused on the confrontation between pro-government and anti-government forces in Ukraine. This confrontation is becoming all the more tenacious and bloody. All the more it is being turned into an interethnic confrontation that is stoking up a hysterical mutual hatred between workers of different nationalities. ...
As a result we have no option but to demand an immediate doubling of the real wage in the interests of preserving social peace in this country. We are deeply convinced that the main cause of the destabilised situation in the country is the greed of Ukrainian and Russian oligarchs, who pay a beggar’s wage to workers, send all their profits off-shore and don’t pay taxes in Ukraine. ... 
The miners specifically called for armed workers’ detachments as key to ending the “fratricidal war” in Ukraine:
... we are demanding that the authorities officially recognise the miners’ self defense and the arming of miners’ brigades. Organized workers and workers’ self defense are precisely that stabilising factor which can effectively prevent the escalation of violence in Ukraine. In those places where organized workers are controlling the situation mass actions never turn into mass killings. The workers defended the Maidan in Kryviy Rih. The workers did not allow any violence when they took under their control the situation in the city of Krasnodon during the recent general strike there.
This appeal to working-class solidarity rather than competing nationalist sentiment is a breath of fresh air in a situation where the lead up to now has been taken by right-wing forces.
A possible further example of workers in action came on May 15, when, thousands of steelworkers spread out over the city of Mariupol and took control over the streets. According to press reports, they routed the separatist militants who had been in control for several weeks. The reports also said that the workers’ patrols had been organized by the steel plant owner, the oligarch Akhmetov, and other company executives, who feared that independence or annexation by Russia would mean the loss of contracts and sales with the West. While this action does not represent working-class independence of capitalists, nevertheless the experience of taking over a city can demonstrate to the workers the power they could wield as a class fighting in their own interests, and this could be a useful lesson in future class struggles against their bosses and governmental oppressors.
Underlying the sharpening inter-imperialist and Ukrainian conflicts is the deepening crisis of global capitalism. The drive for profit motivates the increasingly vicious competition over scarce resources among the imperialist powers and the local capitalist forces aligned with them. Only the overthrow of capitalism and the construction of socialist societies of freedom and abundance can offer a real solution.
In Ukraine, the oppressive experience of Stalinism’s pseudo-communist statified capitalism has discredited Marxism in the eyes of millions and confined left-wing and pro-working class politics to a marginal place in society. The task of winning masses of people to the perspective of socialist revolution faces extraordinary challenges as a result, but this is the only real hope for the masses.
This perspective can only be advanced if revolutionaries take as their starting point the need for the masses to defend themselves against all their capitalist and imperialist enemies. In the present Ukrainian scene, that means opposition to imperialist attacks from all sides, Russia’s military and economic threats and the West’s austerity program. It also means a struggle against the pro-Western capitalist government in Kiev and its far-right and fascist supporters and against its chauvinist and anti-democratic attacks on the oppressed.
The desperate need is for working-class unity against all capitalist regimes, all oligarchs (the ruling class) and all imperialisms. The best chance of that is in the East, given its industrial weight and the miners’ history of class actions against the USSR and post-USSR regimes. The recent actions by miners and steelworkers may be a start, through which the workers will find an independent voice.
Despite the obvious reactionary nature of the Kiev government and its servility towards Western imperialism, one widely publicized Ukrainian organization that claims to be socialist is supportive of Kiev’s pro-Western orientation. This is the “Left Opposition,” whose views are disseminated by the magazine International Viewpoint, published by the United Secretariat of the Fourth International, and by others on the international left.
Left Opposition holds that the Yatsenyuk government “is legitimate and has been established by the revolution. It has been clearly constituted on the basis of the wave of mobilizations from below – the Maidan.”[a] No, this regime is one more example of bourgeois forces, in the absence of revolutionary working-class leadership, seizing the reins of a mass movement driven in large part by anti-capitalist concerns.
The Left Opposition’s most prominent leader is Zakhar Popovych. A decade ago Popovich was one of several leaders of the Ukrainian section of the Committee for a Workers International who perpetrated a notorious fraud on the international far left.[b] As we have pointed out, “The perpetrators of the fraud have not to our knowledge ever issued any explanation of, or apology for, their political, personal and financial dishonesty. ...We warn the left in Ukraine and around the world: these people are not to be trusted in their political, organizational and financial adventures.”
This year Popovych has also been acting internationally, this time spreading his group’s pro-imperialist line. He made a widely reported visit to London, where he spoke at the House of Commons. According to one account, “Zakhar Popovych spoke about his experience on the Maidan protests. He had with him his red flag (with an EU-style circle of stars – representing ‘Socialist Europe’). He showed photos of leftists on the protests, raising their slogans ‘For EU – For a socialist Europe.’”[c]
Popovych’s banner and slogan amount to support for EU imperialism. A major task of genuine working-class socialists in relation to the Maidan protests was to counter illusions in the beneficence of Western imperialism, not to promote them. This “Left Opposition” has no right to take a name that invokes Leon Trotsky’s revolutionary communist heritage.
More recently the Left Opposition has been campaigning for seats on the Kiev city council. Their program is purely reformist, advocating such benefits as “more parks instead of supermarkets, accessible public transport instead of unsuitable private taxi buses,” “increase in the cost of parking in the centre of the capital and for expensive cars,” and rooting out corruption. Astoundingly, their program says absolutely nothing about the political conflicts and deadly upheavals raging across Ukraine and the international rivalries linked to them.[d]
In the U.S., socialist politicians in the early twentieth century who acquired municipal offices on the basis of carrying out small-scale reforms were derisively labeled “sewer socialists.” The Kiev candidates deserve this name in more ways than one.
1. Our analysis of the Stalinist counterrevolution is in the book The Life and Death of Stalinism.
2. See the LRP analysis Russian Imperialism Out of Georgia! U.S., NATO Imperialists Out of the Caucasus!
3. “The Ukrainian Economy and the International Financial Crisis,” by Marko Bojcun, in the book First the Transition, Then the Crash, Gareth Dale, editor (2011).
4. There is one report that Ukraine has already cut off water supplies: Russia Direct, May 13, 2014.
5. See for example Russia to Crimean Tartars: You’re either with us, or against us.
6. Ukraine crisis displaces at least 10,000, Associate Press, May 20, 2014
7. “In Eastern Ukraine, a One-Building, Pro-Russia Realm Persists Despite Criticism,” New York Times, April 9, 2014.
8. Prime Minister Borodai: fascism draped in a Russian tricolour
9. Meet the Cossack “Wolves” Doing Russia’s Dirty Work in Ukraine
10. See further reports and videos of the Russian presence.
11. “Behind the Masks in Ukraine, Many Faces of Rebellion,” by C. J. Chivers and Noah Sneider, New York Times, May 4, 2014.
12. One report commented: “The larger part of the post-Yanukovych Anti-Maidan movement is rooted in almost the same attitudes that underpinned Maidan, especially after the original pro-EU protests, focusing on a limited number of social demands ...”. Extremism in South-Eastern Ukraine, by Anton Shekhovtsov, May 7, 2014.
13. One of the few apparently balanced accounts of the Odessa violence is in the article by Michel Moutot of Agence France Presse, Odessa blaze was a savage collision of hooliganism and politics, May 05, 2014, posted by the China Post.
14. Both versions are given in the report 16 Ukraine soldiers killed in deadly Donetsk region checkpoint attack, May 22, 2014.
15. borotba.org/protiv_konservativnogo_povorota_v_doneczkoj_ narodnoj_respublike.html
16. Appeal of the Kryviy Rih Basin miners to the workers of Europe, May 11, 2014
17. See “Workers Take to Streets to Calm Tense Ukrainian City,” New York Times, May 16, 2014. Also “Fortune threatened, Ukraine’s richest man joins the fray,” Reuters, May 16.
a. “The United Secretariat and Ukraine,” by Dominique Ferré; cited in groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/GreenLeft_discussion/conversations/topics/85056
b. See Ukrainian Fraudsters Again.
d. Socialists campaign for Kyiv City Council