The fighting in the south-east of Ukraine stems fundamentally from longstanding Russian imperialist policy.
Russian president Putin does not want to see Ukraine leave Russia’s “sphere of influence” by signing an Association Agreement with the European Union. He also fears Ukraine joining NATO (unlikely, but now, after the Russian aggression, less unlikely).
As long ago as 2008 Putin told the then American President George Bush: “You don”t understand that Ukraine is not even a state. What is Ukraine? Part of its territory is Eastern Europe. But the greater part is a gift from us.”
In late 2013, when it seemed that the now ex-President Yanukovich would sign an EU Association Agreement, one of Putin’s aides warned that Russia’s response would not be “neutral” if the Agreement was signed, that separatist movements would emerge in the south-east, and that Russia “could no longer guarantee Ukraine’s status as a state.”
If pro-Russian regions of Ukraine appealed to Moscow, the aide continued, then Russia might intervene directly into Ukraine.
Putin has delivered on his aide’s warnings.
He has annexed the Crimea. He has described south-east Ukraine as “Novorossiya” (“New Russia”, the old Tsarist term for a large swathe of Ukrainian territory). He has backed, if not instigated, separatist movements; and sent weaponry and munitions to separatists.
He has allowed Russia to be used as a recruitment and transit ground for separatist fighters; transformed the Russia media into a pro-separatist propaganda machine; and has sent in Russian troops in ever increasing numbers.
Putin’s war has already cost Ukraine over 2,500 dead. Over 5,000 wounded. Over 400,000 refugees, and maybe up to a million. A 28% decline in industrial output in Donetsk region. A 56% decline in Lugansk region. 35 mines temporarily closed. 227 educational institutions damaged or destroyed. Around 20% of this year’s harvest destroyed.
Western leaders have threatened more economic sanctions. But Putin thinks he can face them down. They will not approve military intervention. Under EU “rules”, a unanimous vote is needed before sanctions can be stepped up. Four EU governments have already said they will vote against.
On 24 August, Ukrainian Independence Day, the Donetsk People’s Republic authorities staged what they called the “Parade of Shame”, marching around 90 captured Ukrainian soldiers through the centre of Donetsk.
The event was consciously modelled on a parade of 57,000 German prisoners-of-war, organised by Stalin’s henchman Beria in Moscow in July 1944. Beneath the headline “March of the Captured Fascists”, an article on a pro-separatist website explained the event as:
“A revival of the tradition of the Red and Soviet Armies of the time of the Great Patriotic War. Captured fascists marched through Leningrad and Moscow, so let them do the same here. In Novorossiya the militia are fighting extreme dregs lacking moral principles or constraints.”
Elsewhere in Ukraine, Independence Day celebrations were used to whip up enthusiasm for the war from the other side.
Speaking at a military parade in Kiev, President Poroshenko summoned up visions of permanent war-readiness:
“According to foreseeable historical perspectives, Ukraine will constantly be threatened by war. And we not only have to learn how to live with this, we also have to constantly be ready to defend the independence of our state.”
Poroshenko also announced that the military budget would be increased by $3 billion in 2015-17. Meanwhile Ukraine’s workers’ living standards, jobs and working conditions will suffer in line with the strings attached to IMF loans.
Against such a grim background, socialists internationally need to step up their support for the beleaguered Ukrainian left in its fight for working-class unity and against all forms of militarism and national chauvinism.