Men in military fatigues stand on street corners in Ukraine’s capital Kiev with collection boxes hung round their necks.
They’re raising money for equipment for the “Anti Terrorist Operation”, which the government has been waging against pro-Russian separatists in the south east since last April.
The military is in a dire state, and has just suffered a humiliating defeat in the town of Debaltseve. The war dominates politics in Ukraine, and nationalist divisions are becoming more entrenched.
President and oligarch Petro Poroshenko’s government constantly pumps out nationalist propaganda. The slogan “One Country” and the colours of the national flag adorns posters on the underground metro, and stare down from painted signs on the cigarette kiosks.
Poroshenko has sought to shore up support by mythologising the “Maidan” protests that ousted corrupt oligarch president Viktor Yanukovich last year (see below).
Student protesters Violeta and Kristina are both still angry at the situation for ordinary people. Violeta told Socialist Worker, “Nothing’s changed since the Maidan—the faces did, but the system didn’t.”
Kristina explained, “There’s no help from the government, which is especially bad for our pensioners who are very poor.”
Walking through Kiev, it’s easy to see how ordinary Ukrainians are struggling. People sell homemade food from makeshift street stalls, and even individual fags from packets.
There’s also some disquiet with the war. The government introduced military conscription last year. It is facing a real problem with the large number of people dodging the draft.
In one draft office 14,000 people of military age were supposed to present themselves for medical examination. Barely half showed up.
Ukraine’s spooks arrested journalist Ruslan Kotsaba on charges of treason last month because he advocated draft dodging.
It’s not hard to see why people don’t want to be sent to death and defeat. But the opposition to the war isn’t political at the moment.
“Peace” is a popular demand, and there is still anger against the oligarchs. But these in themselves don’t challenge the imperialist rivalry and nationalism that are tearing Ukraine apart. And the anger isn’t directed against the party of war.
Violeta said, “We need to break corruption”, but that was because she wants to see more funding for the army. Both students spewed chauvinist bile about people in the east. Violeta said, “If people in the east didn’t cry ‘Putin come here’ then maybe we wouldn’t have a war.
“They’re not really Ukrainian, but were brought here by Joseph Stalin after the famine in 1932-33. That’s why we have such problems.”
The toxic mix of social collapse and the losing war could fuel another social explosion.
And that anger could break to the left—or further to the right.
Workers can rebuild the unity the oligarchs wrecked
Thousands filled the Maidan Nezalezhnosti, Kiev’s Independence Square, last month to mark the first anniversary of the ousting of president Yanukovich.
The square gave the protest movement against him a name Maidan.
But a year later the scenes of spontaneous anger have turned into a grotesque nationalist spectacle.
Chants of “Glory to Ukraine” carried through the air. The fascist organisation Right Sector has gained such a sense of legitimacy that even tourist kiosks sell its stickers.
The Maidan movement wasn’t inherently reactionary.
Yanukovich’s decision not to sign a European Union (EU) association agreement triggered the protests. But they were fuelled by anger against the oligarchs.
Violeta and Kristina were involved in the Maidan protests. Violeta explained, “We came first because of Europe. We want Ukraine to be part of the EU because there’s high standard of living there.”
The turning point came when Yanukovich sent in the notorious Berkut riot police. The Maidan’s ranks swelled. Now a poll found that 70 percent were protesting against police brutality, 50 percent “to change life in Ukraine” and 40 percent “to change the power in the country”.
Violeta said, “The main reason now was to break the Yanukovich regime.”
However, the Maidan couldn’t develop into a national movement while it still looked towards the EU.
What’s often missed is how different sections of Ukraine’s ruling class built themselves a social base.
In the west, the oligarchs bind workers to them by playing on democratic aspirations and Ukrainian nationalism. Those in the east talk of protecting them from the market.
This was how the oligarchs and the right profited from the Maidan.
Movements can be pulled to the left or the right. To go beyond this, workers must articulate their own demands and act independently. That would mean breaking with both sets of oligarchs and their imperialist backers.
United struggles of workers across Ukraine’s regions—including a major miners’ strike—helped win independence in 1991.
Nothing short of that unity can halt the carnival of reaction in Ukraine.
We must stop war
The conflict in Ukraine is a result of imperialist rivalry between the West and Russia. The West has imposed sanctions on Russia—and the US and Britain are beating the drums of war.
Britain sent “military advisors” to Ukraine last week. Nato chief general Breedlove has discussed with the US sending lethal aid. These powers that have wrought so much chaos and bloodshed have no right to meddle in Ukraine.
But Russia’s role is not just as a “defensive power” either. Russian newspaper New Gazette revealed last week that Russia’s rulers were already drawing up “invasion” plans before Yanukovich had fled. This included backing an insurgency.
Russia didn’t want an all-out war. But it tried to destabilise Ukraine rather than let it fall under the West’s influence.
The current ceasefire will just lock Ukraine into a proxy conflict.
Neither side is interested in Ukraine’s independence or in democracy. We need an international struggle against imperialism.
That means taking on our own rulers—and showing solidarity with the thousands who marched against war in Russia.