A political crisis over the future of Ukraine has exploded in the past three months. Its catalyst has been the longstanding efforts of big imperialist countries to assert economic and military domination over the republics of the former Soviet Union, and to weaken and marginalise rival Russia.
This takes the form of collaboration with a compliant local elite to impose capitalist austerity and bring the country under the military umbrella of the NATO military alliance.
But the project has faced resistance from the Ukrainian people. This has become especially sharp in the east of the country, prompted by the fall of an unpopular government in Kyiv at the end of February.
A popular revolution in the east is sparking the biggest political and military showdown in Europe since the disintegration of Yugoslavia during the 1990s.
For all intents and purposes, the governing regime in Kyiv is surrendering the sovereignty of Ukraine.
It has signed agreements for financial assistance from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other international financial institutions. These are imposing cuts to public services and the salaries of public employees and that raise the prices of essential goods.
The Ukrainian government is increasingly captive to the far-right and fascist forces that rose to ascendancy during the Maidan protest movement in late 2013, early 2014.
The regime has sent its army into the east of country to suppress rebellion. The focus has been the city of Slavyansk and surrounding area.
More than 20 resistance fighters have been killed there and scores more have been injured. But the city remains in the hands of defense forces, as do the smaller centers of Kramatorsk and Konstantinovka, to the south, also under heavy attack.
Police in the east have been sympathetic to the popular movement. Ordinary soldiers in the Ukraine army have refused to turn their guns on their fellow citizens. In response, the regime has encouraged the formation of militias and “special” police units.
Much of the personnel is drawn from right-wing and fascist groups, and gangs in the west. A leading candidate in presidential election to take place on May 25, Yulia Tymoshenko, is among those urging the formation of militias to unleash the violence many soldiers refuse to carry out.
Fascists gangs conducted a grisly massacre in the southern port city of Odessa on May 2. A crowd of more than 1000 rightists unleashed firebombs on the city's large trade union building in the city center.
Protesters in favour of political autonomy had taken refuge there after earlier street fighting between pro-Ukraine and pro-autonomy crowds.
People camping in front of the building in protest against the Kyiv regime's austerity policies also came under attack and withdrew into the building.
Firebombs were thrown and some rightists entered the burning building to carry out a killing spree. Some people inside who jumped from windows were then murdered outside.
Regime forces staged a provocation in the Black Sea port of Mariupol, south of Donetsk, during Victory Day ceremonies on May 9. They entered the city during the ceremonies in a bid to seize police headquarters from local police.
At least seven civilians were killed, but the army and militias were driven out of the city centre.
Victory Day is one of most important days of commemoration in Ukraine and Russia. It marks the date of the final capitulation of Nazi Germany to the Soviet Union in 1945. This year, The Kyiv regime banned ceremonies in the areas under its control.
The regime fired the top command of the police in Odessa and brought a new, “special” police unit into the city from Kyiv. Similar changes in police command and assignments of “special” police units are taking place in other cities in the country.
In Kharkiv in the east, Ukraine’s second largest city, an uneasy truce prevails between the pro-autonomy, anti-austerity movement an the regime’s local apparatus.
Few, if any, of the May 2 attackers have been arrested. Most of them came to Odessa from other regions in the west.
The regime has also appointed a new governor of Odessa, Igor Palitsya. He is an associate of the wealthy financier Igor Kolomoisky, who was earlier appointed governor of Dnipropetrovsk region in the east.
These appointments by Kyiv of wealthy and corrupt capitalists as governors in eassern regions have further inflamed the situation throughout the east and south.
Donetsk and Luhansk autonomous regions
Slavyansk is 100 kilometres north of Donetsk-Ukraine's fifth largest city. Donetsk is the political center of the rebellion in eastern Ukraine.
A people's republic was declared there on April 7. Popular forces have progressively strengthened their administration of the city.
The neighbouring city and region of Luhansk are exercising a similar “peoples power” autonomy. The two regions lie on the Russian border in the very southeast of Ukraine.
Both held plebiscites on May 11 in which those who voted opted overwhelmingly for autonomy from Ukraine. The vote was also an implicit decision for closer association with Russia, but the exact form this will take, including what Russia would agree to, is undecided.
In anticipation of a “yes” vote on autonomy, leader of the Donetsk Peoples Republic Denis Pushilin announced on May 10: “All military troops on our territory after the official announcement of referendum results will be considered illegal and declared occupiers”.
Mainstream media commentary is focusing on the democratic shortcomings of the plebiscite. They are making no effort to examine the limitations created by the civil war being pursued by Kyiv, including its turn to reliance on fascist militias.
On April 30, Guardian journalist Luke Harding described the situation in Donetsk and Luhansk by writing: “The reality is that Kyiv's authority has vanished, probably forever.”
NATO backs Kyiv regime
The NATO political and military alliance is just fine with the Kyiv regime's turn to violence to resolve the grievances of people in the east. It is backing the regime politically and it moving troops and military hardware into neighbouring countries in eastern Europe. A planned NATO exercise led by the US army will be held in Ukraine in July.
The German daily Bild said that “dozens” of advisors from the FBI and CIA have flooded into Ukraine. Other German dailies are reporting the entry of some 400 US mercenaries with the company formerly known as Blackwater.
US President Barack Obama has endorsed the violence of the Kyiv regime. During an official visit by German Chancellor Angela Merkel on May 2, Obama said: “We're united in our support for Ukraine, including the very important IMF program approved this week to help Ukraine stabilize and reform (sic) its economy …”
The left-wing Borotba Union has published a detailed look at the composition of the new government that came into power in Ukraine in late February.
The fascists of the Right Sector groupings share direction of three ministries — education, anti-corruption and national security. The far-right Svoboda Party controls the ministries of defense, prosecutor general, agriculture and environment.
But visiting Kyiv on May 6, British Foreign Secretary William Hague told the BBC: “The idea that some extremists have taken over here is far, far wide of the mark.”
NATO countries have spent billions of dollars on “democracy promotion” in Ukraine in the past several decades. Mainstream media in the NATO countries is playing a key support role, largely ignoring the rise of fascism in Ukraine and presenting the whole situation as a result of “Russian aggression” and fanatical, “pro-Russia separatists”.
In the west of Ukraine, meanwhile, fascist and rightist gangs are making it impossible for left-wing parties and movements to engage in open political activity. Candidates of the Communist Party and Socialist Party are unable to freely campaign.
Borotba Union, a Marxist group formed in 2011, has been forced to close its public offices in Kyiv and other cities.
In a telephone interview from Ukraine, Dmitry Kolesnik, editor of the left-wing website Liva , said the situation in Kyiv was dangerous for left and working-class activists.
On May Day, anarchists tried to hold a traditional rally but had to change locations several times due to threats of violence by fascists. In the end, the rally could only take place on the outskirts of the city.
Russian socialist and writer Boris Kagarlitsky has penned a series of piercing articles on events in Ukraine that help anticipate what lies ahead. He argues that while a deep-going, social revolution is underway in eastern Ukraine, it faces many obstacles, both material and political.
Kagarlitsky says the popular revolt does not need a full-blown, anti-capitalist revolution in one swoop to make progress. He saidL “It is perfectly possible to put forward an anti-oligarchic social program today, and such a program does not even have to be exclusively left-wing or socialist.
“It is enough to call for nationalisation of the property of those Ukrainian oligarchs who have openly associated themselves with the Kyiv regime, and to demand that these assets be directed toward the solving of social problems, toward investment in health care, education and the development of infrastructure.”
Deepening class and social struggle in eastern Ukraine and throughout the country over time will limit the effectiveness of political agreements that do not address the burning social needs of the population.
Ukraine's standard of living is considerably lower than that of Russia and other neighbouring countries.
It is vital that progressives around the world join with the social justice fighters in Ukraine and Russia to demand: “NATO out of Ukraine and eastern Europe!”
[You can read a long version of this article at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal. Roger Annis is a writer and activist in Vancouver, British Columbia. He publishes the website A Socialist in Canada. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.]