Ukraine: which side are you on?

As the torchlight parades and flaunting of nazi insignia proceed with impunity on the streets of Kiev, a group calling itself the Ukraine Solidarity Campaign (USC) has emerged in Britain to warn workers against ‘taking sides’ in the conflict. Its argument is that there are oligarchs and nationalists on both sides in the conflict, with one side backed by western imperialism and the other by ‘Russian imperialism’. Its conclusion is that workers have nothing to gain by affiliation with either side, and that they should concentrate instead upon advancing their own class interests – that’s how the argument runs.

‘Not taking sides’ against fascism in the Ukraine should be a hard proposition to sell to trade unions, even though it is backed up to the hilt by all the Russia-baiting war propaganda churned out by the imperialist media. After all, following the welcome lead of the RMT, the official TUC line has been support for anti-fascist resistance in the Ukraine. But the reported affiliation of both the NUM and ASLEF to the USC would seem to prove that the stale ultra-left nonsense of ‘neither Washington nor Moscow but the working class’ still has traction in a working class movement so addled by long association with Labour imperialism.


Some quick facts about recent Ukraine history would be helpful. Yanukovich, the elected President of Ukraine, toyed with the idea of signing up to an Association Agreement with the EU, then withdrew at the last moment, dubious about committing to a deal that would disrupt Ukraine’s trade relations with Russia and open the door to IMF restructuring. Enraged by this disappointment, the United States did all it could to fan the flames of protest, even sending a top diplomat, Victoria Nuland, to hand out biscuits on the Maidan. From the outset the protests were dominated by cadres of fascist outfits like Svoboda and Pravy Sektor, inheritors of the fascist legacy bequeathed by wartime Nazi collaborator Stepan Bandera. Any more liberal-minded demonstrators were soon shouldered aside by fascists who had a better grasp of what US imperialism required of them: the violent overthrow of the elected leadership and its replacement by a new government that would sign up to the EU Association Agreement, thereby opening its economy to sweeping privatisation, exposing the population to a massive austerity programme and, last but not least, kicking the door open for NATO to push up to the Russian border. The new government accordingly signed an agreement with the EU on terms even more destructive than those originally envisaged.

A key part of the West’s strategy was to liquidate Russia’s Black Sea naval fleet in the Crimea, but that is where their plans hit a snag. The majority of the population of the Donbass and the Crimea, along with the rest of the Ukraine, had for better or worse voted in Yanukovich. When his government was illegally overthrown and supplanted by one favoured by the West, neither the Donbass nor the Crimea recognised its mandate. When Kiev tried to bully these largely Russophone areas into submission, they resisted. The people of Crimea held a referendum, the result of which was the decision to federate with Russia. In turn, Donetsk and Lugansk held referenda, resulting in a declaration of autonomy for the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and the Lugansk People’s Republic (LPR). The Ukraine army, supplemented by fascist militias, launched a punitive campaign against the Donbass, which in turn formed anti-fascist militias for the defence of the population.

In passing, let it be noted that throughout all these events Russia has annexed nothing, invaded nobody, looted nobody and, in short, utterly failed to conform to the ‘Russian imperialist’ stereotype so beloved of the ‘neither Washington nor Moscow’ tradition.

In the two years of war that ensued, Kiev has launched two major offensives to try to crush the Republics, in August 2014 and January 2015, each of which was fought to a standstill by the militias of the DPR and LPR, an outcome which the imperialist media universally ascribe to the presence of vast numbers of Russian troops, none of which they have ever been able to document. Following each failed offensive, the Kiev junta signed first the Minsk I accord and then the Minsk II accord. These accords require a ceasefire and arrangements for some form of autonomy for the Donbass.

The present situation is that the Kiev junta continues to flout the ceasefire, shelling the civilian population, and has consistently dragged its feet over implementing the provisions of Minsk II. Meanwhile, whilst the greatest suffering is that endured by the besieged workers of the Donbass, misery is growing apace in the west of the country too, where the draconian cuts imposed by the IMF-imposed austerity regime are slashing jobs, pensions and welfare and political repression intensifies every day.

So where do the interests of the working class lie in all this? They lie in fighting imperialism. Poroshenko and his band of clowns would count for nothing were it not for the fact that, for the moment, he is perceived as a useful tool of NATO fascism. The struggle against the Kiev junta is not a local turf war between rival oligarchs but a struggle by all progressive forces in the Ukraine against imperialism and its stooges. Correctly understood, the military fight of the DPR and LPR militias against the imperialist-backed junta, and the economic and political fight of the whole Ukrainian working class, are two facets of the same struggle.

If Ukraine workers allow themselves to become complicit in the national oppression of the Donbass, they place an obstacle on the road to their own social emancipation. Conversely, if Ukraine workers recognise the struggle of the Donbass against fascism and against the imperialist agenda as their own, they clear away an obstacle to their own social emancipation. And if British workers get a handle on what is really going on in the Ukraine, if British workers stand in solidarity with the resistance against NATO-backed fascism, then they will immeasurably strengthen their own fight against capitalism at home.

The fascist character of the Kiev junta

The government in Kiev continues to demonstrate its fascist character, to the embarrassment of those who preach that we should not ‘take sides’ in the Ukraine conflict.

Right from the start the Maidan demonstrations had at their core violent fascist groups like Pravy Sektor (Right Sector) and Svoboda (formerly the ‘Social National Party,’ i.e. National Socialists!). Left groups who tried to attach themselves to the demonstrations were subjected to threats if they declined to display nationalist flags and fascist symbols. The violent overthrow of the democratically elected President Yanukovich was led from the front by fascists, as was the massacre of at least 48 people in Odessa’s Trade Union House in May 2014.

Whilst the Poroshenko regime tries to present a cleaned-up image, it relies for its existence upon fascist support, both politically and militarily. When over the summer armed Pravy Sektor thugs clashed with police in a spat over a cigarette smuggling racket, Poroshenko backed away from confrontation, leaving Pravy Sektor’s leader free to make rabble-rousing speeches in the capital shortly after. And as is well known, freelancing fascist groups were early on integrated into the National Guard and have played a key role terrorising both the rank and file of Ukraine’s army (many of whom display a marked reluctance to slaughter their fellow citizens) and the civilian population of the Donbass (finding it more congenial to slaughter civilians than take on the defending militias of the Lugansk and Donetsk people’s republics).

Responsibility for the continued civil war agony rests squarely on Kiev’s shoulders. Kiev signed up to the Minsk Accords way back in February 2015, agreed to by Ukraine, France, Germany and Russia. Since that time it has repeatedly breached the ceasefire and has dragged its feet over making the political moves required to achieve for the Donbass the form of autonomy agreed to at Minsk, ensuring thereby the bloody prolongation of the conflict.

Instead of resolving the military conflict and tackling Ukraine’s horrendous economic crisis, the Poroshenko junta presides over an intensifying campaign of political repression and witch-hunts against all dissenters. In February 2015 a Ukrainian journalist, Ruslan Kotsaba, was jailed for making a pacifist video which spoke out against the war in Donbass and the mobilisation of Ukrainian forces. Then in September 2015 Poroshenko signed a decree banning 388 people from Ukraine, including 41 international journalists and bloggers from Germany, Israel, Russia, Spain and Britain – including two BBC journalists, a back-handed compliment which the pair scarcely earned! And of course this banning comes on the tail of numerous brutal slayings of Russian journalists, with the trail of blood stretching all the way to the top.

Take for example the case of Anton Gerashchenko, a member of the Rada (parliament) and long-time advisor to the interior minister. He is addicted to the so-called ‘Peacekeeper’ (Mirotvorec) website that specialises in ‘outing’ journalists, activists, critics of the government and anyone expressing sympathy for the Donbass resistance. Those ‘outed’ in this fashion need to look over their shoulders: the website posts cryptic messages congratulating ‘patriots’ for carrying out ‘successful missions’. Two days after the politician Oleg Kalashnikov and journalist Oles Buzina were ‘outed’ in this way, both were found dead.

Gerashchenko, who claims that the website serves as an instrument “in defence of national sovereignty“, maintains that ” everyone who reports a name to the website is doing the right thing” (RT, ‘Personal details of murdered journalist & ex-MP found posted on Ukrainian “enemies of state” database’, 17 April 2015) And the recent death of a Russian airman, shot down by Turkey over Syria and then shot in cold blood by jihadis as he floated down with his parachute, was a death foretold by Gerashchenko, who had already suggested a special page on the website devoted to “Putin’s crimes in Syria“, to “help ISIS take revenge on Russian soldiers in Syria“. (RT, ‘Top Ukraine official backs idea “to help ISIS take revenge on Russian soldiers in Syria”‘, 7 October 2015

With fascists in high places giving the green light to fascist outrages, it has become common place for ‘grassroots’ fascism to flourish. So for example on 8 December a bunch of ‘Maidan activists’, including members of the far right Ukrainian National Self Defence, attacked the local head of the Trade Union Federation in Rivne, Mykola Shersun, and forced him into a rubbish skip. Shersun suffered a dislocated shoulder and a broken leg as a result of his ordeal.

Arsonists get their just deserts

Shamed by this and other evidence of a climate of fear and intimidation reflecting the fascist nature of the ‘revolution’ in Ukraine, those who urge British workers ‘not to take sides’ try to balance things up by pointing at alleged ‘human rights abuses’ in the east. The ‘victim’ of choice for the ‘Ukraine Solidarity Campaign’ is currently one Oleh Sentsov.

Sentsov, a film-maker, was in August 2015 sentenced to 20 years in jail by Russia’s North Caucasus District Military Court for plotting terrorist attacks in Crimea. Another defendant, Alexander Kolchenko, was sentenced to 10 years. The court heard that Sentsov had set up a terrorist group in Crimea, thought to be related to Ukraine’s Pravy Sektor fascist party. The group was hostile to the reunification of Crimea with Russia, despite it having been overwhelmingly endorsed in a referendum of the inhabitants. In April and May 2014 the group carried out explosions with home-made devices in Simferopol, near the Eternal Flame memorial to the Soviet war dead and the Lenin monument. The group also set fire to the offices of the Russian Community of Crimea and the United Russia party. (It will be remembered that it was at this period, on 2 May, that the trade union building in Odessa was torched, burning alive those who had taken refuge within, at a cost of at least 48 lives.)

As a reward for this ‘film maker’s’ efforts to reverse the democratic verdict of the Crimean people, President Poroshenko granted him a two year financial stipend. Sentsov and his friends have fans closer to home, too. Labour’s deputy leader John McDonnell, fresh from having reneged on his earlier posture of support for the national liberation struggle in Ireland (no longer opportune given his recent elevation to shadow chancellor), is now throwing in his lot with the counter-revolution, judging from his comments on the Sentsov case. “When Amnesty describes a trial as fatally flawed the world needs to sit up and listen. The return of show trials in Russia has to be condemned. I join with the thousands of other upholders of democracy in calling for the release of Sentsov and Kolchenko.”

Of course many ‘sat up and listened’ to Amnesty when that organisation spread the gossip that black ‘mercenaries’ were being hired to fight Gadaffi’s corner against the ‘democratic revolution’. Only later did the world learn of the mass lynching of black workers in Tawerga, an atrocity which Amnesty, whether through naivety or prejudice, had helped to sanitise. And too many still ‘sit up and listen’ to Amnesty when it allows itself to be used as a clueless vehicle for hostile propaganda against Syria, China or – in this case – Russia. Contrast this with Amnesty’s stubborn refusal ever to adopt Nelson Mandela as a ‘prisoner of conscience’, on the grounds that he dared to advocate armed struggle against the apartheid regime.

The Ukraine Solidarity Campaign takes very much to heart the measures taken against Sentsov and Kolchenko, wailing that Russia is returning to ‘Stalinist show trials’, that the accused are bonafide left-wingers and that all the detailed testimony pointing to their guilt must have been obtained by torture (just ask Amnesty). Given that the USC does not even recognise the Russian jurisdiction of the trial since Crimea was ‘annexed’ (i.e. was reunified with Russia by will of the overwhelming majority of the population), its prejudicial view of Russian legal process, past and present, can be taken as read.

One admission on the USC website though is particularly revealing. “One thing that united Kolchenko and Sentsov was their opposition to Russia’s annexation of their homeland, of which Putin’s ruling United Russia party was an active player. Kolchenko, Chirniy, and Afanasiev admit to planning to vandalise the United Russia offices, but in all cases the acts carried no significant damage. There are numerous cases of such acts at United Russia party offices and administration buildings across Russia. These are never charged as acts of terror, the perpetrators instead being convicted for hooliganism and getting as little as two years in prison.”

The logic of this complaint is curious. Yes, they admit that they planned to set fire to party offices and administrative buildings. But hell, lots of people do this and get away with shorter sentences! The defence case seems to be as follows. ‘My clients did not do what they are accused of, and those who say different are lying or testifying under duress. Okay, well they did do what they are accused of, but so do lots of other people and they don’t get 20 years, it’s not fair.’

Workers in Ukraine speak for themselves

The USC is fond of claiming to speak on behalf of workers in the Ukraine, so let’s conclude this article by hearing them speak for themselves. Here is the response from the Trade Unions Federation of Lugansk People’s Republic in February 2015 to a message of solidarity received from the World Federation of Teachers’ Unions:

“On behalf of thousands of teachers of Lugansk region and the whole Donbass we sincerely thank you for the support and understanding. The position that is officially expressed by the World Federation of Teachers` Union inspires and gives thousands of teachers of Donbass the confidence at the peaceful solution of the military conflict that is on our territory. The support of our European colleagues is very important for all of us!

“Now our teachers’ unions know that The World Federation of Teachers Union is their like-minded partner and supporter. With all responsibility we declare that your organization led by its clear and strong statements will tell not only the truth about the policy of double standards pursued by the US, NATO and the EU, but will save thousands of teachers!

“Your position gives us confidence in the victory of the working people over the interests of big capital, a victory in defence of the most basic human right – the right to live! From all my heart and on behalf of the teachers` trade union activists of Lugansk region, we express our appreciation for the solidarity, courage and the desire to tell the truth about this war in Donbass, protecting the interests of the working people!

“Wishing you peace and kindness,

The Chairman of the Trade Unions Federation

of Lugansk People`s Republic, Oleg Akimov”

Victory to the Donbass resistance!

Down with NATO-backed fascism!

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