On April 22, the Ukraine government announced a new military offensive against its citizens in the east of the country. The UK Telegraph said 11,000 troops and 160 armored vehicles are involved.
The offensive is directed at the popular protest movement that has deepened since the coming to power of a rightist government in Kiev two months ago. Protesters want economic and social improvements to the harsh conditions of life faced by most people in eastern Ukraine. They oppose the austerity policies of the new government that are a condition of its cherished hopes for closer economic ties with the European Union.
The movement increasingly believes that political autonomy and retaining economic ties with Russia are the only way out of the region’s economic morass.
Attacks by Ukrainian armed forces so far have killed at least four people in two clashes.
A pattern has quickly emerged of the government exaggerating the results of its offensive. It claims it has retaken public buildings in some of the ten or so cities taken over by the protest movement in the past month. However, BBC journalists, CBC Radio reporter Derek Stoffel and many other journalists on the ground say they’re seeing nothing resembling that. The Globe and Mail’s Mark MacKinnon, who has been in Ukraine for weeks, wrote from Warsaw on April 23: “Despite the ramped-up rhetoric, there were few signs Wednesday of the renewed Ukrainian military operation in Donbass.”
The government claims that soldiers killed five protesters during an attack on a protest checkpoint on the outskirts of Slavyansk on April 24. The mayor of the town told assembled journalists afterward that one died.
The government’s action is a violation of the international agreement reached in Geneva on April 17 that was supposed to lessen tensions in the country. It said there should be no military intervention and called for disarming of irregular militias. But in the Ukraine government’s interpretation, disarming does not apply to the rightist and fascist gangs in the territory under its control.
Indeed, evidence from the assault on a checkpoint at Slavyansk on April 20 that killed three residents points to a rightist militia unit as responsible for the carnage. Several of the attackers’ bullet-ridden cars littered the site of the clash afterward. As reported by Mark MacKinnon, residents say they captured weapons, a supply of US dollars and aerial maps of the city. A Russian reporter claims to have found a business card in one of the cars, bearing the name of a leader of the Right Sector fascist party, Dmytro Yarosh.
The new Ukraine government includes representatives of far-right parties. While there have been tensions between the government and the far right, rightists are being recruited to police forces and the national guard.
Mitch Potter of the Toronto Star reported from Donetsk that Yulia Tymoshenko, a former prime minister and a leading candidate in the presidential election to take place on May 25, has called for the formation of more militias to bolster the country’s military in confronting the protest movement in eastern Ukraine. During a visit to Donetsk on April 18, she was photographed shaking hands with militia volunteers, masked men identified as the Artyomovsky Battalion.
According to Nicolai Petrov, a professor of politics at the University of Rhode Island and frequent writer and commentator on Ukraine, the new government has severed ties with consultants of previous governments, including foreign academics. It is favoring, instead, advisers with hardened, right-wing views. The government quickly reneged on a promise made only days ago to hold a referendum next month that would provide for a decentralized, federal political structure for Ukraine.
Petrov also told his interviewer that the government is recruiting from fascist groups that were prominent in the protests in Kiev’s Maidan Square for its bolstered “national guard.”
Military Escalation by NATO Countries
The Ukraine government is receiving strong backing from the US, European Union and Canada. Soon after assuming power, it agreed to tough austerity measures as a condition of promised financial assistance from its foreign backers and international financial institutions.
Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk hosted an official visit by US Vice President Joseph Biden beginning April 20. Coincidentally, the first military offensive was launched on April 15 after CIA Director John Brennan made a quiet visit to Kiev.
That one quickly broke down when Ukrainian troops realized they were not confronting “terrorists” but, instead, unarmed civilians with deep grievances against the government. Civilians shouted at the soldiers and told them to put down their guns.
Yatsenyuk told NBC television last weekend that he wants more support from the US, including for Ukraine’s military. “We need financial and economic support. We need to overhaul the Ukrainian military. We need to modernize our security and military forces.”
The renewed assault by the Ukraine government is a dangerous escalation being matched by the big powers. The US has dispatched 600 additional soldiers to Poland, Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania. It is conducting naval exercises in the Black Sea, including with Romania, which borders on the majority Russian-speaking region in southwest Ukraine. NATO will hold military exercises on Ukrainian territory in July.
The US and its NATO allies say they will place sanctions on Russia’s economy if it intervenes militarily in Ukraine. Last month, in the aftermath of the March 16 vote in Crimea to secede from Ukraine and join the Russian Federation, the big powers sanctioned specific Russian business and political leaders, but not the all-important oil or gas industries. The US accuses Russia of fostering unrest in eastern Ukraine and having a secretive agenda to annex the region.
It might seem downright unfair for the US to blame Russia for stirring unrest when Russia’s business interests and its political stability, too, are threatened by a restive population in eastern Ukraine aspiring for a modicum of social justice. But such is the ruthlessness of the world’s superpower when dealing with its capitalist rivals, particularly those who are not its traditional allies in NATO or in the “Five Eyes” spying alliance.
Canada, a NATO member and one of the Five Eyes, is joining the NATO buildup. It has added six fighter aircraft to its existing force in Europe. Foreign Minister John Baird made a bellicose visit to Poland and the Baltic states on April 24 and 25.
Russia is responding forcefully to the attacks and threats against it. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has told Russia Today television, “Russian citizens being attacked is an attack against the Russian Federation.
“If our interests, our legitimate interests, the interests of Russians have been attacked directly, like they were in South Ossetia [Georgia], I do not see any other way but to respond in full accordance with international law.”
In 2008, a pro-imperialist government in Georgia launched an invasion to seize the autonomous region of South Ossetia that shares a border with Georgia and Russia. That attack was quickly repelled by Ossetian and Russian military forces. South Ossetia declared itself a sovereign republic. A recent survey by the Washington Postfound overwhelming support in South Ossetia for integration into the Russian Federation.
Russian President Vladimir Putin told a televised media forum in St. Petersburg on April 24, “If the current regime in Kiev has begun to use the army against its country’s population then it is, without any doubt, a very serious crime against their people.” He has said all along that Russia will act to defend Russian-speaking people in eastern Ukraine.
“If these people have opted for a hot stage, which is in fact a counter-insurgency operation, it will definitely have certain consequences for those who make such decisions,” Putin said.
What the People Want
Nicolai Petrov said there is a strong consensus in eastern Ukraine for political autonomy. He said it is wrong to claim that the protest movement there is about secession from Ukraine and integration with Russia. “… it is inaccurate – and I have to stress this – inaccurate to call them pro-Russian or separatist, because what they are asking for is autonomy – some define that as federalism, some do not – in any case, a greater say in local affairs within the Ukrainian federation.”