The February 21 collapse of the government of Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich in the face of anti-corruption protests has led to the most serious confrontation between the US and Russia since the end of the Cold War.
The Russian Federation is not the superpower the Soviet Union once was, but it remains the world’s second largest nuclear power after the US, which has about 80% of the world’s nuclear weapons.
The US and its allies are insisting that Ukraine is indivisible, including the autonomous region of Crimea.
“Crimea is part of the Ukraine. Crimea is Ukraine,” US Secretary of State John Kerry told journalists in Rome on March 6.
The Crimean parliament, however, decided otherwise. It unanimously voted that the region would become part of Russia, with immediate effect, to be ratified or reversed at a March 16 referendum.
ABC News Radio reported on March 7 that the Russian parliament was passing legislation that would enable the Russian Federation to absorb Crimea. However, Russian President Vladimir Putin has previously stated that Russia did not wish to do this.
On March 6, US President Barack Obama said: “The proposed referendum on the future of Crimea would violate the Ukrainian constitution and violate international law. Any discussion about the future of Ukraine must include the legitimate government of Ukraine.
“In 2014, we are well beyond the days when borders can be redrawn over the heads of democratic leaders.”
Leaving aside the blatant contradiction between the standards demanded of Russia and Obama’s record when it comes to respecting other nations’ sovereignty and borders, both Russian and Crimean governments reject the legitimacy of the government of President Oleksandr Turchynov and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk. This government was installed by Ukrainian parliament in Kiev on February 27.
Yanukovich was unquestionably corrupt and unpopular, but he had been democratically elected, making his overthrow formally unconstitutional.
For their part, the Turchynov-Yatsenyuk government and its Western allies refuse to recognise the legitimacy of the Crimean government, which was also installed on February 27 in a parliament building occupied by unidentified armed men.
Ukraine only became an independent nation-state in 1991. Previously it was a republic of the Soviet Union. Since the Soviet Union's collapse, three factors have dominated Ukrainian politics.
One is the impoverishment of most of the population and enrichment of a tiny oligarchy. These are former Soviet bureaucrats who used their position in the state to grab the country’s productive resources for themselves.
This process featured wholesale asset-stripping, deindustrialisation and mass unemployment.
The second factor is the West’s moves to consolidate their victory in the Cold War by expanding NATO eastwards. Most of the formerly Soviet-aligned states of eastern Europe have joined NATO.
Russia has sought to draw a line at the Ukrainian border to halt this development. The two countries are linguistically, historically and economically linked. Crucially, one of Russia’s key military assets, the Black Sea Fleet, is based at Sevastapol, Crimea.
The third factor is a political culture with competing nationalist narratives, in which the elite has failed to create a dominant national identity.
Oligarch-controlled political parties have tapped anti-Russian nationalism that has even featured building statues to Nazi collaborators. Others have tapped the Russophile patriotism of the Soviet Union, defined by resistance to Nazi occupation.
Until the Orange Revolution in 2004, Ukraine remained diplomatically close to Russia. That year, there was a mass uprising triggered by electoral fraud, in which the West intervened through aid to both activists and pro-Western oligarchs. This uprising led to a government that was more pro-Western, but with the oligarchs still in control.
Its response the economic disaster created by the oligarchs’ looting of Ukraine was austerity dictated by the International Monetary Fund. This further impoverished the population.
Yanukovich, who had failed to win power through electoral fraud in 2004, was elected in 2010.
In power, he alienated some of his backers in the oligarchy by promoting his family's business interests at their expense. This caused some of them to throw their weight behind the protest movement that erupted in November last year.
The movement was highly contradictory. It was based in Kiev and western rural provinces where Ukrainian is the majority language and illegal work in the European Union is crucial to much of the population’s survival.
It was sparked by Yanukovich’s last-minute decision not to sign a free trade agreement with the EU and instead to join the Eurasion Customs Union, which unites Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan.
However, viewing the movement as purely a pro-EU movement against a pro-Russian president ignores the fact that Yanukovich had promoted the EU agreement as the solution to Ukraine’s problems until Russia offered what he saw as a better deal.
In fact, the EU deal was not for EU membership, but to open Ukraine to EU investment, which would not have increased Ukrainians’ ability to legally live and work in the EU.
It was only after the pro-EU protests were attacked by police that they escalated into a broader movement, determined to occupy the Maidan (Independence Square) and driven by opposition to corruption, police brutality and Yanukovich.
The movement lacked any common vision of what they wanted instead, but grew each time the authorities deployed violence.
Yanukovich had become unpopular throughout the country, but the movement did not spread significantly to the east, south or to Crimea. This partly reflects eastern Ukraine’s economic ties to Russia, and that these regions have a majority of Russian speakers.
The increasingly visible presence of Russophobic (and anti-Semitic) neo-Nazi groups created fear about Maidan in other parts of the country.
The presence of the neo-Nazis in Maidan has been exaggerated by Russia, but it was real and significant. The first far-right group visible in the square was Svoboda.
Idealising Nazi collaborators and equating the oligarch’s with the “Russian-Jewish mafia”, Svoboda won 10% of the vote in the 2010 elections. It was a protest vote against the establishment from poor people in the western rural areas and disaffected middle-class elements in Kiev.
Along with other far-right groups and the pro-Western oligarch parties, Svoboda ran the Maidan protests in a top-down fashion. Right Sector, an alliance of hardcore Nazi street-fighting gangs, gained prominence due to their role in fighting off police attacks.
a spokesperson for the Autonomous Workers Union told Pratele komunizace on February 19: “All the potential self-organisation at Maidan is substituted by the organizational structures of the rightist political forces …
“There is some space for self-organisation but it’s very limited. Vital things just ‘appear’ for an ordinary person there, rank-and-file activists don’t take any part in decision-making.”
The Turchynov-Yatsenyuk government, dominated by oligarch parties but including some ministers from Svoboda, was not greeted with enthusiasm by Maidan. There have been clashes between Right Sector and Svoboda. However, the threat from Russia has dampened these tensions.
In the east, local authorities who supported Yanukovich and were politically close to Russia used the threat from Western-backed Nazis to mobilise anti-Maidan protests. They have demanded regional rights and the defence of Russian-language rights, but not Yanukovich's return.
There have also been pro-Maidan protests in eastern Ukraine. In Donetsk, rival crowds have taken and retaken the city hall, the flags of Ukraine and Russia flying alternately.
The dominant attitude in the east, however, seems to be a pessimistic neutrality.
In Crimea, where 60% of people identify as Russian and 84% speak Russian as a first language, large crowds have mobilised to support the new administration and its moves to break with Ukraine and reunite with Russia.
Fears of the fascist menace from Kiev are real. However, the takeover of public buildings and blockading of Ukrainian military bases has been done by armed units who wear uniforms without insignia.
According to the Crimean and Russian governments, these are local self-defence forces. According to Ukrainian and Western governments, they are Russian invaders.
These soldiers appear to be Crimean police and paramilitary forces, strengthened by pro-Yukanovich and pro-Russian elements of the Ukrainian state with logistical support and some personnel from Russian forces.
Since the March 6 vote by the Crimean parliament, the Crimean government has insisted that these anonymous soldiers and the Black Sea Fleet are the only legally constituted armed forces in Crimea. They have demanded Ukrainian forces based there either change allegiance, disarm or leave.
What the West is calling a Russian invasion seems, in reality, to be a Russian-backed coup d’etat.
The US has imposed sanctions, including freezing the assets of, and placing travel bans on, unspecified Crimean and Russian individuals who the US holds responsible for events in Crimea.
A March 7 EU meeting, while full of strident rhetoric against the Russian “invasion”, merely threatened to impose sanctions at a future time.
Russia’s economic ties to the EU, including being Germany’s main supplier of gas, has made the EU more cautious than the US.
A March 1 resolution by the Russian Parliament authorised the sending of Russian troops into Ukraine if Russian citizens or interests were threatened. But Russia continues to deny it has invaded Crimea.
Putin has said that Yanukovich has no future in Ukrainian politics, but an invitation to Russia from the deposed Ukrainian leader provides a legal sanction for any intervention.
Western hypocrisy extends beyond condemning Putin for practices that are standard statecraft for the Western powers. The West has also been interfering in Ukraine, using the uprising as an opportunity to pressure Russia and threaten its Sevastapol naval base.
The Ukrainian government that emerged on February 27 reflected the preferences vioced in a conversation between US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and US Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt in a Ffebruary 6 conversation that was leaked.
Western infiltration of the protests went further than giving money to opposition parties and training activists in public relations. On February 28, Israeli-affiliated news agency JTA published an article designed to counter Russian propaganda gleefully reporting the anti-Semitic ravings of Svoboda and Right Sector.
The article was based on an interview with “Delta, a Ukraine-born former soldier in the Israel Defense Forces [who] spoke to JTA … on condition of anonymity”.
Describing himself to JTA as a businessman, he was one of five ex-IDF soldiers leading Maidan fighters in violent confrontations with the riot police.
“As platoon leader, Delta says he takes orders from activists connected to Svoboda, an ultra-nationalist party that has been frequently accused of anti-Semitism and whose members have been said to have had key positions in organizing the opposition protests,” JTA said.
Refuting Russian claims about the Maidan being a hotbed of anti-Semitism he said: “What they’re saying about Svoboda is exaggerated.”
It remains unclear where the chest-beating by Russia and the West will lead. It is not necessarily in the interests of either to allow the Ukrainian crisis to escalate to war. However, the tensions it is unleashing could boil over in unpredictable ways — in a confrontation in which both sides are nuclear armed.
It is important, given this, to insist outside forces cease using the Ukrainian crisis for their own ends, and cease meddling in Ukraine's affairs. For those of us in the West, such as in Australia where our government has joined the US in verbal threats against Russia, that means saying to our own governments: Hands of the Ukraine, stop using it to ratchet up the threat of war.
[You can read a lot more about the situation inthe Ukraine, including various views from the Ukrainian left, at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal.]