Ukraine: the wolves are loose (AWTWNS 24 February 2014 )

This AWTWNS news packet for the week of 24 February 2014 contains one article. It may be reproduced or used in any way, in whole or in part, as long as it is credited.

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Ukraine: the wolves are loose

24 February 2014. A World to Win News Service. “Ukraine is now in a pre-default condition and sliding into the abyss,” Alexander Turchynov warned immediately after becoming speaker of the Ukrainian parliament and the country’s acting president. Ukraine needs $35 billion over the next two years and an emergency loan in the next two weeks just to pay its creditors in the East and West. Those creditors are engaged in a mutual tug of war which neither side can afford to lose, and maybe not afford to win. But much more than cash is at stake.

The Ukraine governing party and most of the so-called “oligarchs” suddenly deserted President Victor Yanukovych and brought in Turchynov, an ally of Yulia Tymoshenko, the darling of the European Union, especially Germany.  Becoming filthy rich overnight when the country’s state enterprises were dissolved, she was one of the first of Ukraine’s “oligarchs” and a fitting embodiment of this class, who may be weaker and less adept at hiding their flesh-eating nature than their Western counterparts, but are no less monopoly capitalists. Like the now-deposed Yanukovych and the rest, none of them are loyal to “democratic values” or even any particular foreign power but only to the needs of their chunk of capital to expand without limit in lethal competition with other capitals.

This is not the first time that the U.S. and Europe have tried to snatched Ukraine away from Russia. The so-called “Orange Revolution” of 2004-05 exacerbated an economic and political crisis that led Ukraine to where it is today, and that underlying crisis is far from resolved.

In 2004 the West engineered street demonstrations that snatched the presidency away from Yanukovych and brought Tymoshenko and Victor Yushchenko to government. Despite her Western support, Tymoshenko’s signature political move was a deal with the Russian monopoly Gazprom that was politically advantageous for her but so disadvantageous to Ukraine that by 2010 Yanukovych was back in the presidency and she was imprisoned for corruption. Though considered pro-Russian, Yanukovych entered into negotiations with the EU for a free trade agreement with it. Then last November he suddenly turned around, refused to sign after all and instead accepted a Russian deal for $15 billion in loans and a one-third reduction in gas prices.

So much for loyalty or even predictability among any of Ukraine’s leaders. His reversal, however, was not irrational: it seems that the IMF wanted to impose conditions that might have brought even greater political instability and not the relief that his debt-ridden regime needed to survive. He tried playing off Russia and the EU, and in the end neither saved him.

The youth and others who angrily took to the streets chanting “We want in to the European Union” were badly deluded. Why would the EU or the IMF treat Ukraine any differently than Greece, for example? Germany and other European powers (notably France) skinned Greece twice, once by lending it enormous amounts of money for a “development” that meant importing capital and consumer goods at a rate that helped keep the German economy humming, and then, and then again, when the financial crisis meant that Greece couldn’t pay, by forcing the country to make “adjustments” that drove millions of Greeks into destitution so that foreign capital could recover its principal and interests.

Look at Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, the Baltic states and other former Soviet-bloc countries that have entered the EU – where has that gotten them? Perhaps young Ukrainians hoped that EU ties would bring their country’s living standards up to the slightly higher level of neighbouring Poland, which used to own western Ukraine. But one of that country’s leading exports is young Polish women and men. Becoming more like Poland is not a revolutionary aspiration.

A country of 46 million people, Ukraine became independent in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The world’s tenth largest steel producer, it has very developed agricultural and industrial sectors, but its dependence on exporting steel and steel products has made the country highly vulnerable to the global financial turmoil as well as Russian pressure. Its geo-strategic location provides a vital energy transit route from Russia to Western Europe. About 60 percent of Ukraine exports go to Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. Natural gas, used to fuel industry as well as for household consumption, is the biggest import and the main cause of its trade deficit. Ukrainian external debts grew from $23.8 billion in December 2003 to $137.7 billion in September 2013.

The U.S. and EU-backed and financed “Orange Revolution” from 2005-2010 was not able to bring about structural economic changes and rearrange Ukraine’s political landscape. That would have required strategic political and astronomical financial commitments they were not able to deliver, entangled as they were in wars of occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan and especially as they sank into financial crisis.

The effects of the global financial crisis on Russia during this period were not so severe. Due to rising prices for its oil and gas exports, Russia accumulated huge currency reserves. In some aspects it began to reverse the weak situation it found itself in after the collapse of the USSR in the early 1990s.

At the same time, the emergence of renewed imperialist rivalry and the rise of capitalist China, along with the global financial crisis, has forced the big powers to take greater risks to advance their spheres of influence in every dimension: strategic, political and economic. Ukraine, the biggest non-Russian piece of the shattered Soviet Union, has become one focus of global contradictions.

Germany in particular, already a major trading partner with Ukraine, has been anxious to tear more deeply into this relatively large country and its plentiful natural resources, highly developed industry and export-oriented agriculture. It is a prime market for exported capital and commodities, with a fairly young, skilled and educated labour force accustomed to low pay. German dominance over Ukraine could change the balance of power within the European Union and more broadly.

Yet while Europe and especially Germany have been poised to devour Ukraine, the U.S. has been intensely involved as well, often out of synch with Germany, if not in open opposition. While Obama and Europe’s governments are hailing Yanukovych’s downfall as “the will” of the Ukrainian people, no Ukrainian desires and interests were even an issue in the famous leaked phone call between U.S. Under-Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and the American ambassador to Ukraine. They discussed exactly whom they would and would not accept as the future leader of Ukraine, and agreed that the transition should be brokered by the UN to take the EU out of the decision-making process – “Fuck the EU,” Nuland concludes.

As it turned out, an exit plan for Yanukovych was put together by the foreign ministers of Germany, France and Poland, which Russia refused to sign, as it argued that it would only help pave the way for the opposition to Yanukovych to get rid of him. In any case, for the moment he’s vanished.

American firepower is still Washington’s ultimate argument. It was implicit in US National Security Advisor Susan Rice’s warning to Russia not to send in troops. Opposition to foreign interference rings hollow from the country that occupied Iraq and Afghanistan, led the armed overthrow of the Qaddafi regime and recently threatened military action against Syria and Iran. Not to mention its activities in its own “backyard” – the annexation of a big chunk of Mexico and a century of fattening on the wealth created by Mexicans. The concern Washington displayed for the fate of demonstrators under attack in Kiev’s main square  (Maidan) was nowhere to be seen when the Obama government coordinated the violent clearing of the parks taken over by the far more peaceful Occupy movement in the U.S.

The U.S. 2008 adventure at encouraging Georgia to fight Russia ended in humiliation for Washington, but the stakes for both the U.S. and Russia are now much higher.

For the U.S. and Russia especially, the chief issue is Ukraine’s strategic importance to Russia’s re-emergence as a great power. A tighter alliance of Ukraine with Russia could help Russia bring its former republics into line, especially the more reluctant such as Azerbaijan and to some extent Georgia. Conversely, Ukraine’s further separation would make such a dream for Russia much more difficult and complicated, and encourage more mutiny within Russia’s sphere of influence. Putin’s plan for a Eurasian Economic Union could not prosper without the biggest and richest of the six non-Russian ex-Soviet states.

Russia’s policy has apparently been to encourage contradictions between the EU and the U.S. and lean towards the EU conditionally to isolate the U.S. During the political crisis of the last months, while some forces in Ukraine demanded the resignation of the president, pro-EU forces and Germany proposed a dialogue and reform without a change in president. Even now that Yanukovych is out of the picture, it seems that Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin have been negotiating over the phone, perhaps, according to some observers, discussing the idea of putting in Tymoshenko, ironically one of the least anti-Russian aspirants, as a kind of compromise head of state.

The Ukrainian ruling class seems to have regrouped against Yanukovych. Even his own party disowned him. “All responsibility for this lies with Yanukovych,” the Party of Regions said in a statement. “The party was virtually the hostage of one corrupt family.” It should be noted that the state apparatus has not suffered. In fact, although parliament has called for other ex-ministers to be arrested and tried, the Defence Ministry has not changed hands and the country’s large Armed Forces seem to have approved the anti-Yanukovych consensus. At the same time, it is not at all clear what kind of stable political alliance could replace him.

As pushed around as it has been, Ukraine itself is a relatively developed monopoly capitalist country whose ruling class has its own needs and ambitions. While members of that class may clash among themselves about foreign alliances, they have a certain unity of interests. Most probably see the current situation as an opportunity to “free” Ukrainian capital from its subordinate position or at least improve that position. This is a major reason why the situation is so volatile.

It is almost unbelievable but not impossible to understand that cries against the “Muscovite Jewish mafia” and “Russian Jewish communist domination” should be heard in the streets of Ukraine today. These were the slogans of Ukrainian nationalists who saw the Nazi German invasion in World War 2 as an opportunity to seek the overthrow of the socialism that four million Ukrainians fought and died to defend. Rather than being oppressed by the Soviet Union, it was as a Soviet Republic that Ukraine came into existence as a political entity for the first time in history and that its people were able to blossom as never before.

In the beginning of the Maidan movement students played a major role and there seemed to be a broad political mix of people. However, according to reports, it was increasingly dominated by the Svoboda party, the historically pro-Nazi party said to have led the seizure of the Kiev city hall that triggered Yanukovych’s flight, and the even more openly fascistic paramilitary bands grouped together in the Right Sector. These fascist currents seem to be an expression of the national interests of Ukrainian capital in its opposition to as well as collusion with foreign capitalist powers. The central role of these elements in Yanukovych’s downfall signals a dangerous political and ideological dynamic that cannot be turned off at will.

Extreme reactionary ideology is not, however, the special mark of one side or the other in the fight for power. The debate between pro-U.S. and pro-Russian commentators about which side are the real fascists is wrong and self-serving. The Ukrainian chauvinist racism directed at Jews and ethnic Russians by the anti-Russian gangs is matched by the patriarchal obscurantism of pro-Russian forces (including Yanukovych himself) who insist Ukraine must not join the EU because the result would be homosexual marriages and the end of Christian “values”.

To the extent that there is an ideological battle going on, it is not about “Western versus Russian values” or “democracy”  versus “dictatorship” – Yanukovych was repeatedly elected – but about Ukrainian nationalism. Again, whether or not Tymoshenko’s bad health and political circumstances allow her to come back onto the centre stage, she is a case study in that phenomenon. Brought up speaking Russian, she has said she had to learn to think in Ukrainian and came to oppose allowing Russian as a second official language because of the need to unite the country – which of course has long been united, with many speakers of four different languages, but whose capitalists need a different political climate to achieve their ends as a national capitalist class. One of the first moves of the new acting government was to end Russian’s status as a second official language anywhere in Ukraine.

What we are seeing now are the tragic reverberations of the restoration of capitalism in the USSR after the death of Stalin, on the one hand, and on the other a cynical fight among the big imperialist powers not only over who gets to feed on Ukraine and its people but  ultimately for empire.

Ukraine is in more turmoil than Europe has seen since the dismemberment of Yugoslavia. While there are major differences in the two situations, they bear some similarity in the rapacious and reckless ambitions of the leading imperialist powers, especially Germany, the U.S. and Russia; the rapidly shifting splits and alliances, domestic and foreign, of the country’s capitalist ruling class; and the fostering of reactionary mass movements driven by these interests. But the world has changed, especially in the last decade, and the West cannot expect an easy victory.

Regardless of immediate events, given this context it is unlikely that such a complex situation will be soon resolved. The wolves have tasted blood.

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