The following two commentaries are written by two editors of New Cold War.org in response to an article appearing in the Nov 10, 2015 print edition (online on Nov 9) of the Australian weekly newspaper Green Left Weekly. That article is titled, ‘Are Russia-West tensions a ‘new cold war’?‘ It is authored by Tony Iltis, a regular writer for Green Left Weekly. The section of the article describing the situation in Ukraine and Crimea is enclosed further below.
Donbas and Crimea
By Roger Annis, Nov 12, 2015
I was disappointed to read Tony Iltis’ comments on Ukraine contained in his November 9 article devoted largely to examining the situation in Syria. It is as though nothing has been learned from Ukraine in the past two years.
The author makes only scant mention of the two main factors driving events in Ukraine: the decisive turn in 2013 of the majority of Ukraine’s billionaire elite to an austerity economic “association” with Europe; and the drive by the countries of the NATO military alliance to seize upon the chaos in Ukraine to renew their long, historical drive to weaken and isolate Russia (and before that, the Soviet Union). Tony Iltis summarizes these two, big historical events as a “Western-backed effort to pull Ukraine out of Russia’s orbit”. This understates the scope of what is involved.
Iltis fails to mention the fact that the right-wing regime that came to power in Kyiv as a result of the Euromaidan movement, along with the fascist and other extremist vigilantes with which it is allied, have gravely extinguished political rights in Ukraine. He also fails to mention the grim civil war launched by the regime in April 2014.
Worse, he cheapens the heroic resistance and sacrifices of the people of Ukraine to that civil war. Thousands have died or been taken captive in Donbas (Donetsk and Lugansk). Several million Donbas people have been driven from their homes by the war, with little certainty of if and when they can return safely.
The war is felt not only in Donbas but throughout Ukraine. In Odessa, for example, where at least 48 people were massacred in an arson attack on May 2, 2014 directed against people protesting the coup government in Kyiv. (As noted even by Western observers, the investigations of the Odessa Massacre and the sniper attacks on Maidan Square that killed many dozens of protesters and police in February 2014 are deeply compromised and going nowhere.)
The resistance to Kyiv’s civil war course scored triumphs in Crimea and in Donbas, against great odds, by fighting the regime to a standstill, although at a high price–approximately half of Donbas territory is still occupied by Kyiv forces and several million people there were driven from their homes. Alas, elsewhere in Ukraine, the right-wing regime has consolidated its rule. To the point where armed forces from the U.S., Britain and Canada are actively engaged in the country under the guise of “training missions”, even though this is violation of the country’s constitution prohibiting the presence of foreign armies and in violation of the Minsk-2 ceasefire agreement of Feb 12, 2015. But who is noticing and reporting such violations?
Iltis uses a one-word dismissal of the resistance in Crimea, calling it a Russian “annexation”. He thus dismisses the long struggle of the Crimean people against the neglect and, more recently, the violence and right-wing policies of Ukraine. Crimea was a neglected and underdeveloped region of post-1991 Ukraine. The Crimean people voted in 1994 in favour of formal autonomy from Ukraine, but this was dismissed by the governments then in power in Kyiv and Moscow. Fortunately, an earlier autonomy vote in 1991 did succeed in establishing a regional legislative assembly, the only such regional body in Ukraine. It was this elected assembly which conducted the March 16, 2014 vote to secede from Ukraine.
Following the violent overthrow of Ukraine’s elected president on Feb 22, 2014, the Crimean people quite rationally looked at the civil war clouds gathering over Kyiv and the rest of Ukraine and decided it was time to put an end to the highly debatable, if not ill-considered, decision of then-premier of the Soviet Union Nikita Khrushchev 70 years earlier to “attach” them to Ukraine. They voted to rejoin Russia.
Further proof of the falsehood of the claim of “annexation” of Crime, universally claimed by Western governments and media–is Tony Iltis concerned about the company he keeps?–are the surveys of Crimeans conducted in late 2014 and early 2015 showing exceptionally high rates of satisfaction with the decision to secede, including among Crimeans of Ukrainian descent.
Donbas and Crimea are today governed by elected and representative governments, though conditions of life remain harsh in Donbas. Both regions are suffering economic blockades at the hands of Ukraine and the Western powers. Tony Iltis’ article is guilty of a serious oversight in neglecting to mention the economic blockades against Donbas and Crimea (which mirror Western sanctions against Russia) and the aforementioned presence of imperialist military forces on Ukrainian soil.
Perhaps Iltis’ complaint is that the revolts in Ukraine and Crimea did not lead to some super proletarian revolution we could all celebrate. But socialist revolutions are difficult to envisage in conditions of civil war and imperialist encirclement and economic blockade. So let’s cut the people of Ukraine some slack and celebrate the fact that Kyiv’s (and NATO’s) civil war course has suffered sharp setbacks. Maybe the rest of the world can start weighing in more heavily to help the people of Ukraine to stay any efforts to renew civil war and win back the political rights and space that have been lost. Over time, the people of Donbas, Crimea, Ukraine and Russia will show the world how to make radical and lasting social and ecological improvements. We should have no doubt of that.
Roger Annis made reporting visits to Crimea in July 2014 and Donetsk (Donbas) in April 2015.
On Ukraine and the Donbass
By Renfrey Clarke, Nov 11, 2015
Tony Iltis in his remarks on the conflict since early 2014 in Ukraine (Green Left Weekly, 10 Nov.) rejects a series of the worst misrepresentations found in the mainstream press. But in key respects, his commentary is misguided and ill-informed.
Crucially, Tony ignores the origins of the Donbass revolt in a broad-based popular movement aimed at blocking attacks by avowedly fascist militias. These formations, quite unreconstructed politically, were eventually incorporated by the Kyiv government into the Ukrainian armed forces, and were used as front-line troops in the regime’s efforts to smash the rebellion.
The Donbass is Ukraine’s most heavily industrialised region, and the uprising against Kyiv had strong roots in the local working class. The U.S. establishment journal Foreign Affairs acknowledges that in March and April 2014, check-points and barricades were thrown up in numerous Donbass cities, with the geographical pattern matching closely the centres of the region’s coal industry. These initiatives were essentially spontaneous, taking place before any regional leadership cohered.
Tony speaks of “ultra-nationalists and fascists” among the Donbass rebel forces. In the early days of the revolt, picturesque romantic nationalists, often interlopers from Russia, provided photo-opportunities for Western journalists. But unlike Kyiv’s militias, the rebel forces have never contained more than tiny numbers of people who could conceivably be called fascists. The Donbass suffered appallingly from German fascism during the Second World War. Local antipathies to fascist moods and symbols remain deep and bitter.
Nor are rebel activists widely gripped by “ultra-nationalism”. Peopled largely by descendants of industrial migrants, the Donbass is home to well over 100 nationalities. Most families are ethnically mixed. Surveys show that people there tend to identify themselves primarily as Donbass residents, with many still describing their ethnicity as “Soviet”. Aggressive national particularism goes down badly in the region.
Unquestionably, a political keynote of the Donbass is nostalgia for the USSR. But to view these sentiments as reactionary is a mistake. Tony speaks of “a penchant for Stalinist iconography” concealing ultra-nationalist and fascist moods. But if Donbass residents unfurl the Soviet flag at demonstrations, that has much less to do with Russian revanchism than with anger at the stripping away by Ukrainian capitalists of past working-class gains. The USSR, Donbass workers remember, provided secure jobs and functioning health and social welfare systems.
Tony’s assertion that the Donbass uprising was “hijacked…by elements of the kleptocratic state” obscures more than it illuminates. Sadly, corruption remains a massive problem in the Donbass republics. But to describe the region as ruled by kleptocrats is unjust. In the Donetsk Republic, Prime Minister Aleksandr Zakharchenko remains a popular figure, and reports suggest that his administration would win an honest election.
Meanwhile the Donbass-based oligarchs – the supreme kleptocrats whom the previous state institutions in the region served – long ago put themselves out of the immediate picture by siding decisively with Kyiv.
With their economies battered, and dependent on support from oligarchic Russia, the Donbass republics have not enacted radically popular programs. The prospects of this were always remote.
Still, the working people of the Donbass can point to genuine progressive victories. With much less Russian support than is usually supposed, they have fought the Western-backed neo-liberal Kyiv government and its fascist battalions to a standstill.
And there is still plenty in the Donbass to send a chill down oligarchic spines. The armed forces of both the Donetsk and Lugansk Republics include communist units that go into battle beneath the hammer and sickle. That has to mean something.
Renfrey Clarke was Green Left Weekly correspondent in Moscow from 1990 to 1999.
Text of concluding section of Are Russia-West tensions a ‘new cold war’?, an article by Tony Iltis published in the Nov 10, 2015 print edition of Green Left Weekly and also online. This section of the article is devoted to a description of the situation in Ukraine and Crimea.
… When Russia joined the fray [in Syria], it bombed targets belonging to the array of groups sponsored – to varying degrees — by the U.S. and its regional allies, as well as targets belonging to ISIS and the al Qaeda-aligned Nusra Front. This provoked howls of outrage from Western politicians, but Russia’s intervention in defence of Assad has appeared decisive compared with the confused Western intervention.
However, this is illusory. The U.Sled intervention follows the pattern of all Western imperial adventures since 1991: creating and then attempting to manage chaos to maintain their role as arbiters of the world order. Russia’s intervention represents a weaker power protecting its far more limited interests.
Likewise in Ukraine. The Russian annexation of Crimea last year, and support for the breakaway republics in the Donbas, has appeared bold and decisive, but in reality reflects weakness.
Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union and until last year remained economically close to Russia. The “Maidan” uprising against the corrupt president Viktor Yanukovych, was, like the 2011 uprising against Assad, lacking in any vision except opposition to a hated ruler.
Naive illusions in the benefits of a proposed free trade deal with the EU fuelled the uprising, which was confined to the central and western parts of the country.
Hijacked by fascists and politicians sponsored by the West, the uprising created a new regime that was hostile to Russia and favoured joining NATO. It was also hostile to the Russian-speaking population in the south and east.
The uprisings that followed in Crimea and the Donbas were equally incoherent. Paradoxically, both uprisings were to large degrees motivated by opposition to corruption but hijacked by competing elements in the kleptocratic state.
Both the movement in Kiev and those in the Donbas included ultra-nationalists and fascists (of competing types), although in the Donbas this has been disguised by a penchant for Stalinist iconography.
As well as a linguistic division between the Russian and Ukrainian-speaking parts of the country, there is an economic division between the industrialised Donbas, whose markets are in Russia, and the western and central regions with more economic ties to the EU.
Fuelling the war in Ukraine is a zero-sum-game being played by the Kiev government and its Western backers to definitively pull Ukraine out of Russia’s orbit. The Russian response — annexing Crimea and giving support to the Donbas republics — is essentially reactive, if aggressive.
Unlike during the actual Cold War, when the Soviet Union and the Western powers had different economic models, Russia and the West are now part of same global capitalist economy. Their national economies deeply intertwined, despite real rivalries.