Ukraine: a carnival of reaction looms?

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Imperialist rivalry between Russia, the US and EU threatens a carnival of reaction across Ukraine, that pits Ukrainian against Ukrainian, promoting reactionary forces on both sides.

The Geneva agreement signed by Russia, the US, EU and Ukraine, pledging to "de-escalate tensions", looked dead before the ink was dry. Shootings in the eastern town of Slavyansk left three pro-Russian protesters dead.

Two bodies, one of a pro-Kiev politician, were also found - Kiev claimed they had been tortured. Neither pro-Russian protesters in the east nor the Right Sector in Kiev nor protestors in the Maidan square showed any intention of evacuating buildings or the streets.

The US and Russia each blamed the other. Acting Ukrainian president Oleksandr Turchynov announced the relaunching of "anti-terrorist" operations. The US and Nato sent 600 troops to the Baltic states and Poland, and are supplying "non-lethal" military aid to the Ukrainian regime. Hawks in Washington are demanding even more aggressive action.
Meanwhile, Putin boasts of his ability to send troops into eastern Ukraine. Russia has an estimated 40,000 troops on the border and could choose to turn off the taps to the gas and oil pipelines to Europe.

As Socialist Review went to press, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov declared Russia would "defend its interests", comparing the situation to 2008 when Russia sent troops into the then Georgian enclave of South Ossetia.

Both Russia and the US claim the moral high ground, pointing to fascists and anti-Semites on the other side. John Kerry, the US secretary of state, seized on a fairly evidently forged leaflet and denounced the anti-Semitism of "separatists" in the east, while remaining silent on the appointment of six Nazi government ministers from Svoboda and the Right Sector to the new government in Kiev. Meanwhile, Putin labelled the Kiev government "a fascist putsch", while giving the nod to fascists and Holocaust deniers in the east, such as "governor" Pavel Gubarev, of "The People's Republic of Donetsk", and supporters from Russian organisations.

The truth is that the most reactionary forces have seized the initiative on both sides. Successive governments in Kiev have promoted reactionary Ukrainian nationalism and pro-Russian chauvinism to divide Ukrainian workers and deflect popular anger while Russia and the West have played a cynical tug of war, using the growing divisions within Ukraine to their own advantage.

Despite historic divisions, there was nothing inevitable about the current crisis. It would be a mistake to reduce support for the protests in the east or the west simply to a reactionary plot.
The Maidan protests in November 2013 began with demands for democracy, an end to corruption and partnership with the EU, which many protesters saw as a way out of Ukraine's crisis. The decision by the ousted president, Yanukovich, to switch from a deal with the EU to a deal with Russia was a turning point but not decisive.
It was the vicious and murderous onslaught by the police squads of the notorious "Berkut" that provoked mass opposition. Up to 500,000 demonstrated in early December, 70 percent of whom said they came to protest against police brutality, 80 percent to demand the resignation of the government, with a much lower 54 percent in support of the signing of the European Union Association Agreement.

In January the government passed a series of anti-protest laws, including ten-year jail terms for blockading government buildings and one-year jail terms for slandering government officials. As the onslaught from the hated Berkut continued, the Right Sector and Svoboda were able to present themselves as the most determined defence, not least as they were often the Berkut's target alongside other protesters and bystanders. However, there is little support for the fascist politics that they for the moment have tried to play down.

In eastern Ukraine the extreme positions held by the self-appointed leadership of the pro-Russian protests are also not actively shared by the majority. While 72 percent of people in Donetsk consider the government in Kiev to be illegal, only 27 percent in the region support secession from Ukraine and annexation to Russia, falling to 15.4 percent for the eastern region as a whole.
Workers in both east and west Ukraine have common interests. They face an economic crisis that racks the EU and the Russian economy, both of which are closing "unprofitable" industries and are making workers pay for the crisis. In both east and west Ukraine workers share rage at the corruption of politicians and oligarchs. As one pro-Russian protester told reporters, "We now have the oligarchs in charge again. They just installed new ones. The old ones left and the new ones arrived."

The prospects look grim. The potential for a violent split between east and west Ukraine is real. This would have repercussions for states across Russia's entire southern flank from the Caucasus to central Asia. Even a "federal" solution in Ukraine would only provide a temporary pause. Such a solution would entrench divisions between Ukrainians and provide the base for further rivalry between Ukraine's oligarchs and the opposing imperialist camps.

There was always another possibility. From 1989-91 the miners' strikes in the Donbas helped shake the former Soviet Union to its foundations and won support across the whole of Ukraine. Partly as a result of those struggles, votes for Ukrainian independence in 1991 secured large majorities in every region except Crimea, with no more than 13 percent voting against independence, even in the east.

Since 1991 huge divisions have been sown by Ukraine's corrupt oligarchs and politicians, by the poison of imperialist rivalry and by the economic crisis. The prospect of re-forging unity has become far more difficult, yet all the more necessary.