Despite the ceasefire the crisis in Ukraine is far from resolved
September 8, 2014—Feyzi Ismail: What are the origins of the crisis in Ukis Kagarlitsky: In previous global recessions, the U.S. was the locomotive that pulled other countries out of crisis. But now the American economy is so weak that instead of pulling other countries out of crisis, American recovery is based on pushing other economies deeper into crisis. The other side of the American equation is the expansion of military capacity, and in particular NATO expansion.
Western powers started becoming more interested in Ukraine as a place to access cheap resources, including a cheap, disciplined and a relatively well-educated workforce, which could be employed in the West, and particularly the EU, to undermine the welfare states in the West. Another 10,000 unemployed Ukrainians, who can be moved to the West as flexible workers, is useful for Western capital.
Ukraine could play the same role for the EU as Central Asia plays for the Russian economy—providing lots of workers with no guarantees, no labor rights, no citizenship, no protection and who are completely dependent on the employers. Ukrainians are in a position where they can be turned into this permanent army of migrant labor.
If you read the EU Association Agreement with Ukraine, the crux of it is about closing down most of Ukrainian industry. The agreement says the EU will provide some financial support to solve the financial problems of the state, but for that most industries have to close.
Compared to previous free trade agreements this is definitely the worst Association Agreement ever prepared by the EU. And of course the other aspect of it is that Ukraine has to be integrated into Western political and military structures, that it should become a de facto NATO member. Let’s be clear.
The Ukrainian government would love to become an official NATO member, but becoming an official member would mean changing the Ukrainian constitution. Meanwhile, NATO is reluctant to make Ukraine a formal member, but on the other hand is very keen on getting Ukraine involved in every single war and strategic alliance possible.
For example, take Crimea. Even under Yanukovych, there were already discussions taking place about moving the Russians out and the Americans in. NATO had already announced a tender for building its headquarters in Sevastopol, replacing the Russian Black Sea Fleet there. But at the very last moment, some sections of the Ukrainian elite became worried because they understood that they were going to lose their industry. It was a last minute U-turn—in September 2013—when Yanukovych decided not to sign the Association Agreement.
Feyzi Ismail: What exactly sparked the protests in Maidan Square last November?
Boris Kagarlitsky: In western Ukraine, people were massively unemployed and marginalized, while in eastern Ukraine, industry continued to work, and it was precisely over the resources of the east that the fight was being fought. The west didn’t actually produce much and was only able to consume resources, but only at a very low level because they preferred not to invest resources in welfare.
The center, which is Kiev, was exploiting the east and developed a very parasitical economy, trying to develop itself into a real European capital, while giving meager hand outs to the west of the country and keeping them more or less under control. One can understand therefore why Kiev is in conflict with the rest of Ukraine. It’s very much this parasitical economy of Kiev that is generating support for the new government that is now in place, and it is Kiev that needs to keep the country united, in order to continue to exploit the east.
The oligarchs who own companies in eastern Ukraine live in their luxurious palaces in Kiev, with armies of servants, including ideological servants. Whereas in the east you have a working-class population who are living on very low salaries, who are very frustrated and angry, and who are Russian speaking, which means they have been made to feel humiliated in economic, social and cultural terms. Eastern Ukraine is the most productive part of the country, producing about 80 percent of the GDP, but they get less than any other region.
This situation could continue while Yanukovych and his people, who were also from the east, could keep control of the population through paternalistic and clientelistic networks. The general situation was deteriorating but at least something was given to the trade union bosses, and sometimes even to the workers, even if it was only promises. People in the east still hoped that as long as Yanukovych was in power, they would not be let down completely. But when the far right sided with the neoliberal elites in Kiev, things got out of control.
The protests were provoked by the sudden failure of Yanukovych to sign the Association Agreement, but they moved far beyond it. Crowds of people gathered at Maidan Square in November 2013. They didn’t care much about ideology, it was pure politics. One oligarchic group wanted to take over from another. The important point for understanding the coup d’état that took place last February is that the economy of western Ukraine was ruined through the free market policies. Industrial production that was built there in order to fit this pan-Ukrainian planning system was wiped out post-1990 and most people became unemployed. There was a whole generation of young people who had never worked and were never going to get jobs. Or at best they would get precarious jobs. So they became very easy targets for the far right, who started to give them some kind meaning in their lives by organizing them and paying them to be part of these Nazi gangs.
About 10-15,000 unemployed youth from the west were brought over to Kiev and paid to live there, for months, in order to protest in Maidan Square. What must be understood is that for these people this was the only job they had ever had in their lives. Many of them didn’t want to leave, and some even live there now because they have nowhere to go. Finally they took up arms. The violence was not part of the neoliberals’ plan initially. There are lots of reasons to think that it happened spontaneously.
The Western powers did everything to support this coup d’état, without having a clear strategy of what do to next. At the moment when Yanukovych understood that the West really wanted him to go, he fled. In this power vacuum, the rival group took over.
But the U.S. had earlier backed Yanukovych too. That’s exactly why Yanukovych became so weak. He was expecting to have sustained Western support, then all of a sudden he realized that the West stopped supporting him and started supporting his adversaries; he had his nerves broken, so he fled to Russia. And when Yanukovych fled, his political clientele collapsed, which was a tremendous achievement for the Ukrainian working class. Because once this system collapsed, there were millions of people out of control; not only thousands of mercenaries, but millions of workers. And that’s something very different. There were rallies all over eastern Ukraine.
Interestingly, one of the slogans in Maidan Square was that the southeast must rise i.e., the southeast must rise and support the rebellion against Yanukovych. Of course they did! And once that happened, Kiev sent tanks and aircraft and artillery against them. It was a peaceful uprising everywhere in the beginning, with demonstrations, rallies, the formation of councils, and with local deputies voting for no confidence in the Kiev government.
The problem was also that at that point, the new government of Poroshenko—formed by those who won the coup d’état—they also miscalculated, because they underestimated the capacity of the east to rise. The first thing they did was vote to cancel legislation guaranteeing language rights for non-Ukrainian speakers. This is not the same as banning Russian or other languages, but previously there were some legal guarantees, which are now abolished. This applies not just to Russian, but Hungarian, Polish, Romanian—any non-Ukrainian language.
The irony is that nobody in the Ukrainian government speaks Ukrainian, except perhaps the leader of the fascist party. Many Ukrainian nationalists can hardly manage to say a few words in Ukrainian. People were laughing at the leaflets of the Right Sector, which is a coalition of far right groups, because these leaflets were calling for Ukrainian to be the only language in the country, but they were written with so many errors and with such poor grammar that Russian speakers were correcting these leaflets. The vote provoked enormous protests.
Feyzi Ismail: What was the nature of the uprising in eastern Ukraine? And who are the opolchenie?
Boris Kagarlitsky: First, there was an unarmed uprising, which was repressed militarily, in April. There had been a camp in Odessa organized by those calling for a federal Ukraine, but the camp was attacked by the far right. People were forced to flee into the trade union buildings next to the camp, but the building was then set on fire. People tried to escape but those who got out were killed on the street. The official estimate of those killed was 46, but the unofficial estimate was about a hundred or more. Those who escaped were arrested and put in jail, while those who did the killing were praised as heroes.
After that Donetsk and Lugansk created a self-defense force, taking over buildings and arms depots. The place is full of weapons since the Soviet times because it’s one of the centers of military production and manufacturing.
The fighters are working class people, peasants, miners, and now more and more intellectuals are joining them, mostly coming from Russia and other parts of Ukraine. Initially they were fighting for more autonomy, but the two people’s republics, Donetsk and Lugansk, declared independence last April.
At first they were willing to negotiate to accept some kind of federal agreement with Ukraine. But when Ukrainian troops bombed and wreaked havoc on these territories, well, the last time we met with deputies from Donetsk and Lugansk, they said that after what Ukraine has done to us very it’s clear that they don’t see us as their co-citizens. They don’t see these territories as their own. And we don’t want to stay in this country, unless—unless—this government is dissolved.
So there were two turning points. The first was on May 2, 2014, when people were forced to take up arms. In a sense that was a success for the new government in Kiev because they localized the rebellion; it was initially a peaceful, unarmed rebellion all over eastern Ukraine, and they ultimately localized the rebellion in two regions. The second turning point was the election that was organized (actually it was bought) by one of the oligarchs, Poroshenko, the so-called “chocolate king” because he owns a big confectionary business. Poroshenko also appointed several other oligarchs to particular provinces. So each oligarch got the province where he had the most assets.
This is an extreme case of oligarchic rule, like a feudal country. Poroshenko got the majority in the elections because those who opposed the coup were not allowed to run. He also spent three times more money than everyone else put together, and it seems that he also bought the electoral committees. And finally he seemed most moderate among the candidates that were allowed to run.
Poroshenko has been in power since June, after which there has been a full-scale military attack on the east, comparable to a Second World War operation with hundreds of tanks, aviation, bombing, massive artillery shelling and so on. It’s not like guerrilla warfare, it’s full-scale war. But the opolchenie—militia is the correct translation—they have actually created a formidable fighting force. Of course there are lots of Russian volunteers, and some of them have a great deal of military experience.
The Russian government of course allows ammunition and food to pass through the border, definitely, and also allows volunteers through. Some Russian military organizations of course co-operate with opolchenie, clearly, and there are Russian troops that moved into Donetsk and Lugansk and are stationed along the border to control both sides of it, but they are not taking part in active combat. On the other hand it’s totally untrue that the Russian government manages these operations of opolchenie.
There is a permanent conflict among the Russian elites, especially after the first wave of sanctions against Ukraine. Sections of the Russian elite began to panic, and also they hate these people’s republics because they are very threatening for the Russian state, raising debates about nationalization, overthrowing the oligarchy and so on.
Russian industry is also providing spare parts to the Ukrainian military and Poroshenko had to acknowledge that without the steady flow of spare parts and technicians from Russia it wouldn’t have been possible for the Ukrainian army to continue fighting.
Feyzi Ismail: What is the nature of the people’s republics of Donetsk and Lugansk and how is Russia relating to the republics?
Boris Kagarlitsky: Shortly after Donetsk and then Lugansk were declared republics, there developed a big struggle about their future. On the one hand, they emerged because of the mass support of working people, and on the other hand they cannot survive without some co-operation with Moscow and with the Russian government. And Russian elites use every opportunity to influence, manipulate and subvert these forces.
Inside the republics, there are also contradictory tendencies. The general demand is for welfare, the establishment of a social people’s republic—not a socialist but a social republic—which means that a welfare state should be incorporated into the institutional structures of the system. There are lots of demands for nationalization and, for example, they stopped healthcare reforms towards marketization.
These are demands from fighters on the ground. At the same time, the republics are unstable and inefficient, and also their legitimacy is questioned. So there is a permanent political conflict within these republics.
While there are progressive demands on the one hand from the grassroots, there are also bourgeois elements within the republican leaderships, and also constant pressure from Moscow not to move in these more progressive directions, using its capacity to control the frontier and provide or stop supplies of food and ammunition to blackmail the republics. For example, they tried hard to block nationalization programs that were declared in both republics, unfortunately with some success. If they were to go forward, Moscow would cut supplies. So there is a constant struggle. But there is also a constant struggle inside Russia because there is a growing movement to defend these republics, and there’s a growing movement to support these very demands. So it’s a struggle that’s continuing on both sides of the frontier.
The problem also for those who are trying to control Donetsk and Lugansk from Moscow is that opolchenie is becoming more radicalized, and it’s supplied by volunteers who are very radical and left-wing, most of them. Of course they are nationalists, but even those who are nationalists, they basically support welfare demands.
So in a political sense, Moscow is fighting an uphill battle. But they still have very important tools. If they close the border the republics would be defeated. That’s why so far there is a political stalemate. Even those progressive measures that have been declared have not been implemented. Partly also because of the state of war, you have to concentrate militarily; but the fact that opolchenie is radicalizing is very important.
One of the most popular figures in opolchenie was Igor Strelkov, who was not a leftist at all—in fact he claims to be a monarchist, loves the Russian empire and is romantic about Russian Tsars and so on—but as commander of the opolchenie in Donetsk he was bringing along all sorts of left-wing radicals with him. He also managed to kick out many nationalists and right-wing people from opolchenie—but for technical reasons; he said these people were bad fighters, they didn’t follow orders, they didn’t respect the command of the people’s republic and so on.
At some point, it started becoming visible that Strelkov was becoming far more popular in Russia than Putin. So Strelkov’s popularity was increasing while Putin’s popularity was diminishing because he hasn’t been taking a firm stand against the West.
The conflict came to the fore in early July when Strelkov retreated from Sloviansk, when his troops were encircled by Ukrainian troops and where he was expected to be killed. He left Sloviansk, organized a defense of Donetsk, and suppressed a conspiracy to surrender Donetsk to Ukrainian troops, a conspiracy that was organized by pro-Kremlin figures there.
So it was very clear that they were going to surrender Donetsk, probably in agreement with Poroshenko, as a guarantee that Crimea would be safe in the hands of Russia. This conspiracy was defeated and all these pro-Kremlin people were thrown out of Donetsk. They didn’t arrest anybody, they just asked them politely to leave the city and, as a result, Strelkov became the enemy of the Kremlin. They finally managed to get rid of him by cutting his supplies, and when he was lacking ammunition and food, he was forced to go to Moscow. At that point, he seemed to be detained, and then we got his letter of resignation. Whether he signed it or was forced to sign it nobody knows, but then he disappeared and we don’t know his whereabouts.
It’s been about a month. Many legends emerged, including a fake video showing him in Ferguson. That just gives you an understanding of how intense the struggle is around these republics, and how the struggle is only just beginning.
Feyzi Ismail: How should we analyze the future of the republics in relation to the rest of Ukraine? Is the fight by the republics still over autonomy?
Boris Kagarlitsky: There will be a real need to form representative political leaderships. The people who are fighting see Novorossiya as much more than these two republics. Because Novorossiya is also Kharkiv, Odessa and the whole of the southeast.
Now when Putin is calling for a ceasefire, the question is whether opolchenie will stop fighting. Especially because they’re winning. They managed to win against an army that had probably more than 60 times more tanks and so on, partly because they use guerrilla tactics. But also the morale of the Ukrainian troops is very low, they desert, and they don’t want to go and fight. They sometimes desert with weapons and join the opolchenie, while others just run away. Thousands have defected. Hundreds have turned to the side of opolchenie, and they now are forming battalions of Ukrainian deserters. They want to form a regiment. So there are enough people to form a regiment, and probably there will be more.
On the other hand, the way Ukrainian generals behave is terrible because they are just sending people forward as cannon fodder. The losses are incredible, similar to losses during the Second World War. The opolchenie is mostly composed of volunteers and of people who have had military training, many of whom fought in Chechnya or Afghanistan. These are fighters who are more or less competent to do the fighting. While on the Ukrainian side they are sending conscripts who didn’t even get proper training. So the losses are very high, and that also undermines the morale of the Ukrainian troops and has led to a lot of discontent.
Now the Ukrainian generals behind the frontlines have to wear bulletproof vests to protect themselves from being shot by their own soldiers. I think that’s why the movement will spread into the rest of Ukraine.
The fight is no longer about autonomy because of course now they are now calling for independence. I think if we got Novorossiya as a new country in Europe it would be a good thing. The common ground they have with the rest of Ukraine is that they want to get rid of the government in Kiev.
Once the Poroshenko government is defeated, they will negotiate. And they will have to decide whether they want a federation or an independent country—or perhaps Ukraine will disintegrate into a few different countries. In this case maybe the west will split on its own and maybe Hungary will take over some other region. But the common ground between people in the southeast and the movement is that first you have to get rid of the government in Kiev and then you have to find a way to negotiate peacefully and on a democratic basis.
If they manage to get rid of the current government then the possibility of Ukraine staying together is greater. Poroshenko will try to stay but he’s losing ground, and the far right is increasingly against him. The army of Novorossiya is winning, his own army is less and less loyal, and he’s dependent only on the intelligence services and security services. But you can hardly stay in power with only the security services backing you. So his power base is shrinking very fast. His main card is that he has the backing of the U.S. and the EU. But that will not be enough if he doesn’t have a measure of domestic support.
Feyzi Ismail: What have been the military advances by opolchenie in the last couple of weeks? Is this a turning point?
Boris Kagarlitsky: I think it is a turning point. Ukrainian troops have been in full flight and the opolchenie were progressing and moving forward all over the front line. Lots of Ukrainian troops were encircled and surrounded. The position of opolchenie has been to disarm these Ukrainian fighters and then let them go. They don’t keep too many prisoners partly because there isn’t enough food. But also they think it’s very good propaganda for them. Sometimes they keep them for a few weeks, and then ask their parents to come to pick up the conscripts. Once the parents come they go back home with their kids. So we have had all these images of Ukrainian troops leaving, disarmed. Or they leave for Russia, and of course Russia sends them back to Ukraine. But what also happens is that after spending time with the opolchenie, many of them prefer to stay over and fight on the other side.
We are now seeing hundreds of troops retreating, disarmed, and it’s a crushing moral defeat—it would be a total moral defeat for any army.
The frontiers between the republics and Russia are in the hands of insurgents, which means that there will be a flow of material—food and ammunition into the republics—and it’s also much harder for the Russian government to control because as long you control the whole frontier there will always be incursions. The next target was Mariupol, which is a big port and which is already under siege, but the opolchenie don’t want to take the city because it would inflict heavy destruction and casualties among civilian population, which is something opolchenie is trying to avoid.
Back in April there was mass support for Donetsk in Mariupol, but there is growing skepticism amongst people because of the chaotic leadership in Donetsk. Nevertheless the insurgents were trying to convince Ukrainian troops to leave the city. Once they secure Mariupol—or even before that—they will move to Berdyansk, which is another important city, and which is already outside of the area of the Donetsk and Lugansk republics. As far as I know from their news service Colonel Cassad, the tendency is that they think Moscow sooner or later will force them to stop.
On September 6, 2014, there was already a ceasefire agreement forced upon the opolchenie by Moscow. But it’s by no means certain that it will last. Insurgents are trying to go forward as much as possible to undermine the Poroshenko regime and undermine the chances of Moscow and Kiev to make a deal behind their backs.
Feyzi Ismail: What are the prospects for the movement to bring about social change? And who is leading this movement?
Boris Kagarlitsky: What is happening in Novorossiya is a revolutionary movement, though it’s not yet a revolution in terms of social change. But you have to win the war. If the war is won you still have to win the political slogan. But there is potential. You see, nowhere for so many years—perhaps since the Spanish revolution—have we seen thousands of workers, or even hundreds of thousands, mobilized.
There are thousands of workers in arms. And of course the Moscow oligarchs are scared of it spreading into Russia. Quite a lot of people speak about socialism. Others speak of a compromised version of a social republic, which means a welfare state, social priorities and some socialization of property, including factories, mines and railways. The current leadership of Donetsk republic was reluctant to implement even those changes that they themselves declared necessary. Instead of nationalizing the property of oligarchs, for example, they put up posters around Donetsk saying that the republic will fight the oligarchs.
It’s quite normal that you have a bourgeois leadership of a movement that is, in its composition and in its momentum, if not necessarily proletarian then plebeian; it’s a popular movement. These bourgeois leaderships do everything to minimize the potential for social change, and limit the movement. But it may end up with these leaderships being replaced, as it was in the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution, which first began with very moderate leaderships. The important thing for the left is to create the political force and the political cadre to carry forward the next stage of the revolution.
But this isn’t the Stalinist theory of stages; what I mean is that you have to make the revolution radical and move forward. And while there is a very strong presence of progressive forces it doesn’t mean that everybody is on the left—there are also all sorts of conservative elements within the movement. For example, we had this project with political activists in Belgorod for almost three months and we discovered that in general these people are very progressive in social terms, towards the welfare state, towards social rights, towards people’s power and so on, but at the same time they’re very conservative culturally. They praise family values, they’re positive about Christianity as a core system of values—though they’re not necessarily practicing religion—and most of them are homophobic, etc.
At the same time, however, this is something that can be remedied. What else can you expect from a society that was showered with reactionary propaganda and that survived a terrible defeat of soviet style socialism? It’s quite natural that people have all these illusions and contradictions and problems. We have to work with them and contribute to their struggles, because these problems can be overcome through practice.
I’m reminded of what Subcomandante Marcos said about all these leftists who went to the jungle and tried to educate the Indians; they discovered there were lots of things they had to learn from the Indians. I don’t see why intellectuals shouldn’t learn from workers and peasants and lower middle class people in Donetsk or Kharkiv or Odessa. This is an ongoing struggle. But you cannot fight and win the struggle unless you express basic solidarity with the cause. Because what some of the left is doing is they are saying that the movement is not homogenous, and they have to prove that the movement is genuinely progressive.
Why do they have to prove anything to a bunch of intellectuals in Moscow or Paris? It’s exactly the other way around. The left has to prove to workers and miners and peasants and other toiling people that it deserves their attention.
Feyzi Ismail: What should the left in the West be doing and how should we be developing solidarity movements?
Boris Kagarlitsky: We have to build solidarity campaigns but they have to be linked up with other solidarity campaigns to broaden the struggle. I think it would be nice if we flew the flag of Novorossiya together with the flag of Palestine, for example. Solidarity campaigns shouldn’t be isolated from one another, they have to be integrated. Non-military tasks are emerging, and doctors, engineers, solidarity workers and humanitarian programs are needed, like in other places.
People must go to the region to see how much damage has been caused by the war, and there must be material help provided, training and education and so on. We in Russia can help facilitate that. There are already volunteers from France and Spain but I don’t think more fighters are needed; rather, solidarity workers are needed, people who will help with reconstruction, especially as government troops are pushed away and areas are liberated.
Going forward I think opolchenie must score more victories, and Russian society must develop more solidarity movements together with Western societies, which also have to do the same. I think we have to look at these events in the same way as we look at Palestine, for example. There are all sorts of contradictions inside the movement, just as in Palestine—it’s not a homogeneous movement. Not every single element of the movement is progressive.
The same is true in Novorossiya. It’s not a homogeneous, progressive, revolutionary movement; it’s a coalition, which involves different elements. The movement started with people protecting the statues of Lenin, some of them fly red flags and so on but there are elements of Russian nationalism, and also there are more conservative elements who want Novorossiya to be like Ukraine before the crisis.
We have to support the left inside Novorossiya and inside opolchenie. They are getting stronger but they need our support and solidarity. And we must also import this Ukrainian revolutionary movement into Russia, which we are doing with some degree of success—because there are more and more people involved in the solidarity movement, which is becoming a force of its own and is already beginning to influence Russian politics and Russian public opinion.
That means that we have to build solidarity across the frontier, and we have to link up these solidarity movements in Russia with the antiwar, anti-NATO, and anti-imperialist movements in the West.
Feyzi Ismail teaches at SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies), University of London, and has been active in UCU (University and College Union) and the student movement of 2010. She is a contributor to The Assault on Universities: A Manifesto for Resistance, and a member of the Counterfire editorial board.
Boris Yulyevich Kagarlitsky is a Russian Marxist theoretician and sociologist who has been a political dissident in the Soviet Union and in post-Soviet Russia. He is coordinator of the Transnational Institute Global Crisis project and Director of the Institute of Globalization and Social Movements (IGSO) in Moscow.1
—Counterfire, September 8, 2014
1 Boris Yulyevich Kagarlitsky