Popular Rebellion Deepens in Eastern and Southern Ukraine

NATO and the Kiev Government Step Up Attacks

A political crisis over the future of Ukraine has exploded in the past two months. It’s being driven by the longstanding efforts of the big imperialist countries to assert economic and military domination over the republics of the former Soviet Union and to weaken and marginalize rival Russia.

Anti-fascist rally in Odessa. [Photo: borotba.org]
Ukraine is the latest target in the imperialists’ sights. But they are running into profound resistance from the Ukrainian people, particularly in the east of the country. For reasons of Ukraine’s history, economic makeup, languages and culture, the people in the east have moved far beyond the comparatively tame program of the earlier ‘Maidan’ protests in Kiev and western Ukraine. They are flatly rejecting the austerity policies on offer from Europe’s leading capitalist countries. They reject the drastic disruptions to their lives that would result if Ukraine becomes a vassal state of Europe’s capitalist economy, as the country’s ruling class wishes. A working-class and popular revolution is deepening in eastern Ukraine, sparking the biggest political and military showdown in Europe since Yugoslavia during the 1990s.A similar intervention is aimed at China, but it proceeds cautiously in view of the huge investments of western capital there and the role of China’s capitalist economy as a ‘workshop of the world.’

For all intents and purposes, the Kiev regime is surrendering the sovereignty of Ukraine. It has signed agreements for financial assistance from the IMF and other international financial institutions that demand cuts to public services and the salaries of public employees and that raise the prices of essential goods. Politically, the regime is increasingly captive to the far-right and fascist forces that rose to ascendance during the Maidan protest movement that ultimately overthrew an unpopular but elected government.

The stakes in this fight were described by Professor Aleksandr Buzgalin of Moscow University in an interview on The Real News Network on May 4 when he said that following the massacre of more than 40 protesters by fascists in the city of Odessa on May 2, “This is the beginning of civil war in Ukraine.”

Pro-autonomy referendum votes in several regions on May 11 will strengthen the popular revolution’s political hand. But the obstacles it faces are enormous. With time, class struggle in the east can inspire Ukrainians in other parts of the country to join a fight for an anti-austerity and pro-people political path, and a spillover effect will also grow in Russia. This article will examine the situation facing the people of the Ukraine and the stakes for the rest of the world.

Military Campaign in the East

The Kiev regime has been sending more soldiers, militia units and military hardware into the east, including tanks and helicopters. The focus of its attacks has been the city of Slavyansk and surrounding area. More than 20 resistance fighters have been killed in the city of 125,000 by snipers, assaults on rebel checkpoints and street fighting. Scores more have been injured. There are numerous reports of the army and militias shooting on unarmed civilians. Rightist militias are exacting revenge on citizens in the areas they seize.

But the regime is unable to retake the city. Four helicopters have been shot down by popular defense forces. And contradicting earlier news agency reports, two towns south of Slavyansk, Kramatorsk and Konstantinovka, remain in rebel hands.

Other cities in the east have also come under army and fascist militia attacks. Regime forces staged a provocation in the Black Sea port of Mariupol, south of Donetsk, during Victory Day ceremonies on May 9. They entered the city during the ceremonies in an attempt to seize the police headquarters building from local police. At least seven civilians were killed and the army and militias were driven out of the center of the city.

Victory Day is one of most important days of commemoration in Ukraine and Russia, marking the date of the final capitulation of Nazi Germany to the Soviet Union in 1945, ending World War Two in Europe. The Kiev regime banned ceremonies this year in the areas under its control. That decision went unnoticed in international media, or if it was mentioned, Canada’s public broadcaster was probably typical when it reported that the measure was taken in order to protect public order from fanatical ‘pro-Russian separatists’ (national radio news on May 8).

Slavyansk is 100 km north of Donetsk – Ukraine’s fifth largest city. Donetsk is the political center of the rebellion in eastern Ukraine. A people’s republic was declared there on April 7 and popular forces have progressively strengthened their administration of the city.

The Donetsk declaration spurred further actions by local movements – occupations of more public buildings in more towns and cities and in some cases asserting control over policing and other local services. The city and region of Luhansk are exercising a similar ‘peoples power’ autonomy.

Many larger cities in the region, notably Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city, are presently living an uneasy truce within their borders. On April 30, Guardian journalist Luke Harding described the two most southern and eastern regions, Donetsk and Luhansk: “The reality is that Kiev’s authority has vanished, probably forever.”

A 37-year-old housewife, Irina, told Harding’s colleague Harriet Salem in Slavyansk (northern Donetsk) on May 6, “It is impossible to turn back to Ukraine after the events in Slavyansk. We will not forgive the killing of our people.”

In Mariupol on May 9, pensioner Nina Tuvayeva was watching the fighting and accompanying unruly behavior by some residents when she told The Guardian‘s Shaun Walker, “I’m against all of this, and I wanted a united Ukraine, a country that would be like Switzerland or Belgium, but they don’t want that, so now our only hope is Russia. Ukraine is over.”

Kiev’s army in the east is bolstered by militias composed of members of rightist and fascist volunteers from the center and west of the country. That is fueling unrest all the more. A leading candidate in the presidential election scheduled to take place on May 25 wants more militias. Yulia Tymoshenko told Ukraine’s ICTV television on May 4, “in the absence of a combat capable army, in the absence of a combat capable police service and the Security Service of Ukraine in the form in which we need them today, we need to rally people who are able to fight, we need to create a volunteer army.” Tymoshenko has twice served as Ukraine Prime Minister.

But without outside intervention, prospects for the army and fascist offensive in the southeast, if not the rest of eastern Ukraine, are not strong. A defense commander in Slavyansk told The Guardian on May 5 that hundreds of men were signing up to join their ranks. “We can’t even accept them all because we don’t have enough weapons, for now,” he said.

The leader of the Donetsk Peoples Republic, Denis Pushilin has announced that with the anticipated votes in Donetsk and Luhansk on May 11 in favour of autonomy, “All military troops on our territory after the official announcement of referendum results will be considered illegal and declared occupiers.”

Massacre in Odessa

In Odessa, May 2 was a day of massacre at the hands of pro-Kiev fascists. A large crowd of rightists unleashed firebombs on the city’s large trade union building in the city center. Protesters in favour of political autonomy had taken refuge at the building following earlier street fighting between pro-Ukraine and pro-autonomy crowds. An encampment in front of the building that was protesting the Kiev regime’s austerity policies for weeks also came under attack.

Several hundred people escaped into the building from the rightist crowd numbering more than 1,000. Firebombs were then thrown into the building and some rightists entered it to conduct a killing spree.

The left wing political group Borotba Union has published an eyewitness account on its website of the day’s events, one of many such written and video reports. Extensive video footage and photos of the carnage are posted to the Ukraine Human Rights website.

Borotba Union member, Andrey Brazhevsky, was killed in the attack. He was one of several activists who escaped the fire by leaping from a window, only to be murdered by fascists outside waiting to pounce. Two female survivors of the attack who were inside the building told their stories to the Kiev Post.

Most of the rightists had come into the city from elsewhere in Ukraine on the occasion of a football match, spoiling for a fight.

Odessa is the third largest city in Ukraine, founded by Russian empress Catherine The Great more than 200 years ago. It is a multinational city with large populations of Russians, Jews, Georgians and Tatars. It is on the Black Sea and is Ukraine’s main ocean port.

Ukraine Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk made a demonstrative visit to the city on May 4, supposedly to mourn the tragedy of two days earlier. But he used the visit to further the regime’s propaganda war, blaming the massacre on Russia and ‘terrorists.’

Al Jazeera reported from Odessa on May 4: “People walking around the building that was on fire on Friday are dazed and shocked by what happened,” he said. “They reject the idea of Russian involvement and place the blame on the government in Kiev.”

The regime is particularly incensed at a popular action in Odessa on May 4 that saw a large crowd break into the main police station to free people who escaped the massacre on May 2 but were detained by police. Sympathetic police stood by as the liberation of the 67 prisoners occurred. On May 2, police were ill-prepared for the fascist assault or were ordered to do nothing. They came to the rescue of people in the building after the firebombings.

The Washington Post reports that the regime has fired the top command of the police in Odessa and brought a new, ‘special’ police unit into the city from Kiev. The unit is composed of volunteer “citizen activists,” that is, far-right cadre. According to the same Post report, the government has changed the command of police forces in other cities and is forming yet more ‘special’ police units.

The regime has also appointed a new governor of Odessa, Igor Palitsya. He is an associate of the wealthy financier Igor Kolomoisky who was earlier appointed governor of Dnipropetrovsk region in the east. These appointments by Kiev of wealthy and corrupt capitalists as governors have further inflamed the situation throughout the east and south.

Police have been sympathetic to the popular movement in the east and have refused to carry out repressive acts. The same problem has bedeviled the regime with its army – soldiers are refusing to shoot fellow citizens. It’s why the regime is turning to rightists and fascist volunteers to form militias and ‘special’ police units.

The east of Ukraine is heavily industrialized. More and more coal miners and factory workers are entering the struggle on the side of autonomy. Two groups of industrial workers in and around the small city of Yenakievo recently pledged to join the movement in greater numbers, including demanding that their enterprises (owned by a pro-Kiev right winger) be nationalized.

The Associated Press’ Peter Leonard wrote on May 8, “Support for the [autonomy] referendum is most pronounced among eastern Ukraine’s proudly Russian-speaking working-class. Rage against the central government that came to power after months of nationalist-tinged protests is blended with despair over Ukraine’s dire economic straits and corruption.”

NATO Backing of Kiev Regime

The NATO political/military alliance is just fine with the Kiev regime’s turn to violence, including recruitment of rightists and fascists to its repressive forces. The alliance is backing the regime politically and it is moving troops and military hardware into neighbouring countries in eastern Europe. A planned NATO exercise led by the U.S. army will be held in Ukraine in July. The German daily Bild reports that “dozens” of advisors from the FBI and CIA have flooded into Ukraine.

President Obama has endorsed the violence of the regime, telling a press conference in Washington on May 2 during an official visit by German Chancellor Angela Merkel,

“We’re united in our support for Ukraine, including the very important IMF program approved this week to help Ukraine stabilize and reform (sic) its economy…

“The Ukrainian government has the right and responsibility to uphold law and order within its territory…”

Borotba Union has published a detailed look at the composition of the new government that came into power in Ukraine in late February. The fascists of the Right Sector groupings share direction of three ministries – education, anti-corruption and national security. The far-right Svoboda Party controls the ministries of defense, prosecutor general, agriculture and environment. Svoboda’s Oleksander Sych is one of three vice prime ministers. The website of Prosecutor General Oleh Makhnitskyi of Svoboda says that “stopping displays of separatism” is a priority of his ministry. The ministry has also been busily releasing rightist prisoners accused of violent acts in Kiev and other cities.

Robert Parry of Consortium News has similarly analyzed the rightist background and allegiances of regime figures.

But visiting Kiev on May 6, British Foreign Secretary William Hague told the BBC,

“The idea that some extremists have taken over here is far, far wide of the mark.

“They [Ukrainians] cannot be bullied out of having their elections [on May 25] by disorder that is deliberately fomented and coordinated from another country – in this case from Russia.”

NATO countries are also stepping up a propaganda war. They have spent billions of dollars on ‘democracy promotion’ intervention in Ukraine in the past several decades. The military alliance describes the political aspirations of eastern Ukraine as “chaos” and falsely accuses Russia of stoking the movement and aiming to weaken Ukraine, if not annex it.

Mainstream media in the NATO countries is playing a key support role, all but ignoring the rise of fascism in Ukraine and presenting the whole situation as a result of ‘Russian aggression’ and fanatical, ‘pro-Russia separatists.’

A welcome respite from NATO propaganda is provided by U.S. academic Nicolai Petro. In a new article on May 8 titled “Six mistakes the West has made (and continues to make) in Ukraine,” he writes:

“If the West appears confused by Russian actions in Ukraine and unable to find an adequate response to the crisis, it is because from the outset, it has misread the situation, transforming an essentially domestic dispute into one that threatens the security architecture of Europe.”

The aim of NATO military moves and its propaganda war is to increase pressure on the popular movements to back down. It is also aiming to pressure Russia not to support the rebellion. Russian support is vital. There are looming shortages in the east of funds as well as all sorts of supplies, including fuel and medicines. Kiev has tightened restrictions on passenger and freight transport by air and rail into the region.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been one of the most bellicose NATO voices. He used a visit to Ottawa on May 5/6 of NATO’s supreme commander, U.S. Gen. Philip Breedlove, to sound off once again, saying Russian President Vladimir Putin is mounting a “slow-motion” invasion of Ukraine.

Breedlove was in Ottawa for two days during the annual gathering of the Conference of Defense Associations. At a press conference on May 6, he accused Russia of “agitating the situation in eastern Ukraine.” He says NATO is aiming for a “robust presence” throughout eastern Europe that will last until at least the end of next year. When asked if NATO will establish a permanent troop presence in member countries in the east, he said, “I think this is something that we have to consider.” He would not say in which countries he intends foreign troops to be based.

Canada is doing its own “slow motion invasion” of Ukraine. It has sent six fighter aircraft and a large contingent of support personnel to Romania, a warship to the eastern Mediterranean and soldiers to Poland.

A thorny problem with which NATO and its fledgling regime in Kiev is wrestling is Ukraine’s reliance on Russian gas for its energy supply. The New York Times describes one elaborate scheme that the alliance is working, which is to reroute Russian gas bought and delivered to western Europe back to Ukraine via an aging pipeline connecting Ukraine and Slovakia. But the Times describes a glitch in that plan – for reasons unknown, at least to the Times reporter, Slovakia is not keen to facilitate the scheme.

Among the many dangers from this conflict to people in neighbouring countries is this one: Ukraine has 15 nuclear reactors dating from the era of the Soviet Union. The largest nuclear reactor in Europe is on the Dnieper River, a little north of Crimea. There are four reactors at Chernobyl, in northern Ukraine, destroyed in the 1986 nuclear disaster that are still leaking radiation and still requiring critical, ongoing maintenance.

Fascist and rightist gangs are making it impossible for left wing parties and movements to engage in open political activity in the center and west of the country, including campaigning in the May 25 election by candidates of the Communist Party and Socialist Party (full list of election candidates here). The left wing, Borotba Union group has been forced to close its public offices in Kiev and many of its members there have relocated to eastern Ukraine for their personal security. The group called for an international day of anti-fascist action in solidarity with Ukraine that was taken up in several countries in western and central Europe.

In a telephone interview from Ukraine, left wing writer and editor Dmitry Kolesnik said the situation in Kiev is very dangerous for left and working-class activists. On May Day, anarchists tried to hold a traditional rally but had to change locations several times due to threats of violence by fascists. In the end, the rally could only take place on the outskirts of the city. Kolesnik is an editor of the left wing website Liva (‘The Left,’ English section here).


On May 7, Russia offered several conciliatory gestures toward the NATO countries, including pulling back troops from near the Ukraine border and urging the movement in eastern Ukraine to postpone plans to hold autonomy referendums on May 11 in the regions under their direct control. The Russian move helped lift some pressure off the rebel movement. NATO exposed itself when it immediately responded in saying ‘not enough.’ But the Russian counsel did not deter the holding of the referendum. Denis Pushilin said the planned referendums would proceed. “Civil war has already begun. The referendum can put a stop to it and start a political process.”

Russian socialist and writer Boris Kagarlitsky has penned a series of piercing articles on events in Ukraine that help to anticipate what lies ahead. In a lengthy essay on May 1, titled “The Logic of a Revolt,” Kagarlitsky examines the background to the political conflict:

“Discontent had long been building up in the south-east, and the final drop that caused the cup to spill over was the dramatic worsening of the economic crisis that followed the change of government in Kiev. After signing their agreement with the International Monetary Fund, the authorities decreed steep rises in the charges for gas and medicines. A social explosion became inevitable. In the west of the country and in the capital, growing indignation was restrained for a time through the use of nationalist rhetoric and anti-Russian propaganda. But when applied to the inhabitants of the east, this method had the reverse effect. Trying to douse the fire in the west, the authorities poured oil on the flames in the east.”

He concluded:

“The Geneva agreement [between Russia and the U.S./Europe on April 17, intended to ‘deescalate’ the conflict] will not be implemented. How can anyone force people to carry out such an agreement when these people have just begun to feel their strength? When tanks turn tail and run from them? When they are able to bring army columns to a halt simply with catcalls and obscenities? The people will not surrender their positions just because important gentlemen in Geneva, without asking anyone actually on the spot, have taken it on themselves to decide the fate of others.”

Of the respective roles and interests of Russia and the Kiev regime, Kagarlitsky wrote in mid-April, in an essay titled “From The Maidan to the revolution?”:

“Official Moscow has let it be understood, in no uncertain terms, that it makes no claim to Ukraine’s rebellious provinces. This is not a diplomatic move and not a concession to the West; more correctly, it is a step dictated, among other causes, by a desire to avoid any escalation of a conflict that has far exceeded the bounds of anything the Kremlin finds convenient or manageable. Unlike Crimea, where everything was controlled and where, after two or three demonstrations, the transfer of power was carried out by the local elite, in Donetsk and Luhansk we are witnessing the elemental force of a popular movement, which it is simply impossible to manage from outside…

“The new Ukrainian authorities in turn are faced with an extremely unpleasant dilemma. The disturbances in the south-east can only be crushed with the help of the far-right Right Sector organization…

“Here we find the real challenge before the Ukrainian revolution: the future of Kiev and of the country as a whole depends on whether the masses of ordinary citizens, the everyday folk who shortly before were alien to the passions and problems of the Maidan, are able to move into political action.

“If the masses rise up, neither the Right Sector nor the political adventurers who rode to power on the preceding wave of street protests will stand a chance. This will mark the beginning of a new, democratic politics – not only in Ukraine, but in Russia as well.”

On May 3, he wrote in “The Fate of Donetsk is Being Decided in Kharkov” that the movement in the east needs to develop a radical social program and keep up its forward political motion in order to have a hope of victory. He counsels against faith in Russia’s solidarity:

“The insurgents are convinced that all they need to do is to hold out for a certain time and Russia will then come to their aid; if this does not take the form of direct military intervention, some other mechanism will be found… Unfortunately, every passing day since the beginning of the revolt has shown how illusory these hopes are…

“A broadening of the social base of the uprising will depend on its program, on the goals and slogans that it advances. Against the background of an inexorably worsening economic situation, only demands aimed at satisfying the urgent needs of the masses can serve to mobilize the huge numbers of people who now sympathize with the rebel republic, but who are not ready to stand beneath its banner…

“In conditions of revolutionary crisis, moderation ceases to be a pragmatic virtue… If the revolt shifts to a more radical course, the authorities in Moscow will be forced to beat their breasts and voice their approval. In the same way, they were obliged in the case of Latin America to come to terms with Hugo Chavez, even though the social measures being implemented in Venezuela caused them no particular delight.”

Kagarlitsky says the popular revolt does not need a full-blown, anti-capitalist revolution in one swoop to make progress:

“It is perfectly possible to put forward an anti-oligarchic social program today, and such a program does not even have to be exclusively left-wing or socialist. It is enough to call for nationalization of the property of those Ukrainian oligarchs who have openly associated themselves with the Kiev regime, and to demand that these assets be directed toward the solving of social problems, toward investment in health care, education and the development of infrastructure.”

The aforementioned article by Nicolai Petro proposes political measures that would ease political tensions and armed clashes.

Conservative writer Anatol Lieven writes similarly in the New York Review of Books on May 6:

“What all this reveals is something that should have been blindingly obvious ever since Ukraine became independent in 1991 and that is deeply rooted in Ukrainian history: Ukraine contains different identities, and cannot be ruled unilaterally by one of them alone, or pulled in a single geopolitical direction, without risking the breakup of the country itself…

“… events in the east and in Odessa make clear that a Ukrainian state that defines itself purely in pro-Western and anti-Russian terms is also out of the question, because a great many Ukrainians will not tolerate this…”

Deepening class and social struggle in the east, and throughout Ukraine over time, however, will limit the effectiveness of political agreements that do not simultaneously address the burning social needs of the population. Ukraine’s standard of living is considerably lower than that of Russia and other neighbouring countries.

Dmitry Kolesnik says the military crackdown by the regime will continue and he voices similar views to Kagarlitsky in saying the rebels cannot afford to rest on partial gains. “The rebels need to act on a radical and progressive program – nationalization of key industries, expand social programs and democratic participation by citizens, and so on. It will be difficult to hold onto the regions they control. But the successes they achieve will influence people in Russia and Ukraine and win greater support.”

He says video news coverage of events is very important so the world can see what the Ukraine government is doing. “The western media says the whole story here is Russian aggression, but the reality is that the Ukraine government is on a path of civil war.”

Yet to weigh in on the events in Ukraine are the working-class and progressive movements in Europe, North America and the rest of the world. They have a decisive role to play in acting in solidarity with the social revolution in Ukraine and stopping those who would drown it in blood. It is vital that they act. Revolutionaries in Ukraine and Russia are appealing for solidarity and it is vital that progressives around the world join their appeals for:

  • NATO out of Ukraine and eastern Europe!
  • No to fascism and extreme nationalism!
  • No to the austerity policies of the big capital and finance!
  • For international working class solidarity! •

Copyright, Truthout.org. Reprinted with permission.

Roger Annis is a socialist and union activist who writes regularly on topics of social justice and peace. He blogs at rogerannis.com.