War or Peace in Ukraine?

This was written before the Ukrainian Presidential elections in May but I forgot to publish it. I think it is fairly close to what has actually happened since, especially in the light of recent events in eastern Ukraine.

NATO’s top commander in Europe General Breedlove’s recently stated that he though Vladimir Putin had obtained his objectives without invasion is probably correct.

Russia’s recent moves in the Ukraine were after were not part of a greater long term plan of military expansionism, but a short term reaction to a sudden and unexpected set back: the overthrow by force of the leader of key neighbouring state.

Now Putin wants to deescalate the situation and is looking to get out of a dangerous standoff.

Civil war is in practically no one’s interest. It would be many times bloodier than anything else to happen in Europe since the Second World War. It could destabilize the entire continent and suck in all the main powers. As the weakest of these his regime might be first to crack.

War is not in Putin’s interest.

The people with the most interest in the current war hysteria are  those currently ruling in Kiev. Tymoshenkos and her cronies, Turchynov and Yatseniuk, and the fascists of Svoboda and the Right Sector.

They need the Russian threat to justify their regime and drag politics further towards the nationalist right.

The unexpected rulers

Time is not on their side however. Presidential elections are scheduled to happen on 25 May, and if the polls are correct (and they so far have been fairly consistent) Ukraine’s current leaders are likely to be turfed out of office.

It must be remembered that the leaders of the Maidan movement are from the nationalist right of Ukrainian politics. Since independence in 1991 they have generally not held power, and when they have done it has tended to slip through their fingers quickly.

They were propelled into power in February on the back of a mass movement in Kiev, but one which enjoyed the political protection of Washington and Berlin. Without this it is likely that they would have been swept form the streets before it reached that stage.

Nowhere else in Europe has the occupation of a city centre that has gone on so long, or been this violent, been tolerated.

Even then their sudden rise to total power was unexpected and unplanned for. As the Nuland phone call shows they were willing to power-share with Yanukovich. It was the Right Sector, which precipitated (with the unwitting help of the brutal and inefficient Berkut) the uprising that ousted the President.

Nationalist Right face defeat

Ukrainian politics are set to return to its default setting: rule by a coterie of technocrats and oligarchs and their occasional front men.

All the polls suggest that the Presidential election on 25 May it will be a landslide for Petro Poroshenko, the “Chocolate King” Oligarch (and incidentally arch-rival  of Julia Tymoshenko).

Since the race began he has consistently polled over 30%. His closest contender is Tymoshenko who is trailing far behind on less than 10%.

The other leaders of EuroMaidan are nowhere.

The popular but vacuous Klitschko has sensibly withdrawn to run for Mayor of Kiev and thrown his weight behind Poroshenko (probably making an implacable foe of Tymoshenko in the process).

The leader of the fascist Svoboda party, Oleh Tyahnybok, is polling just 1.4% and Dmytro Yarosh of the Right Sector is running second to last on 0.7%.

These figures are considerable step backwards for them. Tymoshenko received 25% of the first round vote in the presidential elections of 2010.

The leader of the fascist Svoboda party, Oleh Tyagnybok, only got 1.4% in those polls. However his party took 10% in parliamentary elections in two years later. The latest polls suggest he is returning to the electoral margins.

The nationalist right have never managed to achieve an electoral majority in Ukraine, and are now doing worse than in previous elections.

Their upcoming electoral debacle may be a result of a public reaction against their politics now that they have had full exposure and the fact that since their accession to power (no matter who else might also be to blame the country has gone to the edge of civil war).

Return to default

Poroshenko is a return to the default of Ukrainian politics.

He as an oligarch who “made” his money in confectionaries but diversified into a whole host of other concerns.

Like most Ukrainian oligarchs, he also has a foot in politics, and right at the top. He is an establishment figure who has switched allegiances at various points.

He was one of the first oligarchs to back Yushchenko in the Orange Revolution of 2006 which prevented the protege of the incumbent president Kuchma from coming to power in a rigged election.

He then served in government under the resulting Orange Bloc administration (and became a deadly rival of Tymoshenko, who also quickly fell out with Yushchenko).

After the disintegration of the Orange Bloc in mutual recriminations Poroshchenko then moved to back backed Viktor Yanukovich and his Party of the Regions.

Yanukovich made a come back in the following election and beat his discredited Orange foes. Poroshchenko then served in his government also.

He is from the same technocratic/oligarchic centre of Ukrainian politics from which Kuchma, Yushenko and Yanukovich all spawned, and which has dominated politics, no matter what their label or despite their squabbles since independence in 1991.

Neither the Ukrainian nationalist right, with its base of support in the Ukrainian speaking West or the Soviet nostalgic left, with their base of support in the East, have ever been able to break out of their core vote, despite how divisive elections can seem.

It is the centre that is now asserting itself.

Wild cards

That does not mean that peace and stability are about to be restored

Both the mass demonstrations in Kiev and the rising in the east has been driven by the dire economic state of the country, the economic crisis and the mass disillusionment in the political system.

These multiple and interlocking crises have not gone away, and in fact have been deepened. The country in which identities have been more multiple and complicated, has been polarized to a much greater than ever into people who identify as Ukrainian speakers or Russian speakers, no matter what language use or ethnicity they may previously have claimed.

The wild cards in the immediate future are the right, and in particular the fascists and the movement in the East.

Further killing in the East by the far right, or another Odessa, could start a spiral of ethnic identification and conflict that could be difficult to stop.

The other wild card is the movement in the east.

This was not just pop-up movement directed from Moscow. It is a movement of rebellion which Moscow has sought to influence, as have other political forces, mainly influenced by Russian nationalist and Soviet nostalgic ideas, and not necessarily under Moscow’s control.

It has also started to encourage strike action, in what is still a highly industrialized area dominated by coal and steel, raising economic demands. These are bringing workers into conflict with the real authors of the Ukrainian crisis, and the people who have thus far dodged the bullet: the oligarchs.

Workers vs Oligarchs?

This movement if it grows can both start to really challenge the status quo in Ukraine, which is not about whether the country leans to the east, or the west, but whether its wealth and resources are controlled by a tiny group of people who are richer than Croesus lording it over the poor and exploited system, and whether these people also control the political system.

To do this though it will have to free itself politically from both Ukrainian and Russian extremists.

This is not just a pipe dream.

The 1989 – 1991 miners of the Donbass were at the forefront of both workers struggles and for democracy in the last years of the Soviet Union.

Despite not having no history of strike action in 1989 the Donbass miners, along with miners in Russia staged huge strikes for improvements in wages and conditions. They then set up the first independent unions. By 1991 they were leading mass strikes for democracy.

This nascent workers movement was  however destroyed by the economic disasters of the 1990s.

Far from over

Whether the situation can be stabilised is open to question. It the short term it is likely as both Ukrainian oligarchs and Russia’s rulers want stability. However Ukraine has now become a new fault line in an increasingly unstable world situation.




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