Russia is increasing its pressure on Ukraine. The US, and even more the EU, anxious for gas supplies from and lucrative financial deals with Russia, hesitate to respond.
On 21 April Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said that Russia, which has 40,000 troops massed near the border, might intervene to “rescue” eastern Ukraine. “There are more and more calls to Russia for rescue from this lawlessness”.
In the east Ukrainian city of Slavyansk, on 20 April the mayor installed by pro-Russian forces which have seized the city hall called for Russian troops to come in. According to the Financial Times (22 April), “Russian special forces like those seen in Crimea before its annexation now operate openly” there.
Pro-Russian armed men now control the city halls of about a dozen cities in East Ukraine. In several they have promised referendums before 11 May (and so well before the scheduled Ukrainian presidential election on 25 May) on issues of local autonomy or merger with Russia.
A deal was signed on 17 April in Geneva between Russia, the US, the EU, and Ukraine, providing for the pro-Russian local coup-makers to withdraw from public buildings. Only result: the Ukrainian government retreated from already-hesitant moves to take back the buildings. The Ukrainian government (formed after mass protest ousted pro-Russian president Yanukovych on 22 February) fears that any large clash between Ukrainian forces and the coup-makers will be taken by the Russian army as licence to invade.
The pro-Russian forces in eastern Ukraine disdain the deal; the Russian government says the local coups are nothing to do with them; evidently the US, the EU, and the Ukrainian government felt so weakly placed that a vague deal and vague hope seemed to them the best they could achieve.
The same day, 17 April, Russian president Vladimir Putin referred to a large sweep of Ukrainian territory as “Novorossiya” (“New Russia”, the Tsarist term for it). He said he could not understand why the Bolsheviks, at the end of the 1917-22 civil war in which the Russian workers’ revolution held out against reactionaries and invading troops from 14 countries, ceded “Novorossiya” to Ukraine. (Answer: the area had and has a Ukrainian majority, despite large numbers of Russians in the upper social layers in the cities, and the Bolsheviks upheld the rights of oppressed nations. But Putin would not understand that).
Putin’s declaration was a coded signal about re-annexing that territory to Russia. Probably what he wants is an overall deal giving Russia decisive influence over all Ukraine, rather than a forced partition of Ukraine unlikely to achieve international recognition; but the threat of a forced partition may help him get a deal.
The city hall seizures in east Ukraine are not just operations by the Russian government. There is a large ethnic Russian and pro-Russian minority in the area (25% or more); much wider distrust of the oligarch-dominated Kiev government; and fear about the social implications of the decline, which may be accelerated by closer links into world markets, of the old Stalinist-built heavy industry of the area.
Help for the frail Ukrainian left in its advocacy of socialist alternatives which could unite workers across Ukraine against the oligarchs is urgent. So is support for Ukrainian self-determination, and if necessary self-defence, against Russian imperialism.