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Ukraine—the shadow of 2014 on today’s war 

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The Ukraine conflict began long before Russia’s invasion. Rob Ferguson looks at why imperial rivalry and nationalist division have torn Ukraine apart since 2014
Issue 2796
Kiev, Ukraine, on February 18, 2014.

Protesters in Kiev, Ukraine, in February of 2014

The makeup of the Ukrainian government is regarded in conflicting ways. Some would consider it is now a beacon of liberation and freedom in the face of Russian aggression. Others would argue that it is a hive of fascist and Nazi forces. To understand the truth, it is essential to look back almost eight years.  

Conflict has torn Ukraine apart since 2014, claiming over 14,000 lives and creating over two million refugees. In 2014 mass protests erupted against the Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych. They were filled with rage at the corruption of the regime and the “oligarchs”—super-rich, politically ­powerful businessmen. When protesters broke into the family mansion of president Yanukovych, they were stunned at the luxurious surroundings. 

A pure copper roof, ­private zoo, underground shooting range, 18-hole golf course, tennis courts, bowling alley and a gold-plated bidet. All this in a country where 35 percent of the population lived below the poverty line. Ukraine was one of the ­hardest hit states of the former Soviet bloc, ravaged by hyper‑inflation during the 1990s and the world financial crash of 2008. According to World Bank figures, Ukraine was poorer in 2013 than in 1990—and still is. By 2013, the ruling class was desperate for a bailout from the European Union (EU) and International Monetary Fund (IMF), or Russia.

At the same time, ­imperialist rivalry between the West—the US, Nato and EU—and Russia had intensified in the region from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea.  These pressures had led to a war in Georgia in 2008 and ­tensions across the area. This meant that alignment with one economic bloc—the EU or Russia’s Eurasian Customs Union—carried with it military alignment towards Nato or Russia. Each “deal” was mutually exclusive, imposing huge tensions on an economy dependent on both Russian and Western markets. And each would demand a heavy price on Ukraine’s workers. So, after some hesitation, Yanukovych turned to Russia. This triggered the “Maidan” protests—named after the central Independence Square in Ukraine’s capital Kiev. 

The protests focussed anger at the corruption and economic hardship onto demands that Ukraine sign an association agreement with the EU. This was to prove hugely divisive. Before Maidan, oligarchs and politicians had long fostered regional and ethnic divisions between ethnic Russians and ethnic Ukrainians. This worked to secure their political base and deflect popular anger. After the financial crisis of 2008, elements of this strategy were employed with a vengeance. The Russian speaker in east Ukraine was portrayed by Ukrainian nationalists as a ­“coloniser”, belonging to a foreign fifth column. Ukrainian speakers in the west were all portrayed as filthy Nazi collaborators, who hated ethnic Russians and Russian speakers. 

However, such reactionary views never represented the majority on either side. Old divisions of language and ethnicity had been breaking down. Between 2003 and 2010 the percentage of young people using only Ukrainian or only Russian dropped. Bilingual use of both the Russian and Ukrainian languages rose from 19 percent in 2003 to 40 percent in 2010. Most ethnic Ukrainians and Russians are bilingual. They intermarry and converse in both languages.

By 2009, the numbers of Ukrainians’ who saw ethnic divisions as a problem fell from 50 to 37 percent. However, as Ukraine’s ruling class stoked divisions after the 2008 financial crash, this soared to 73 percent by 2014. In 1990, the struggles for independence, democracy and the strikes had demonstrated the potential for unity. The Donbass miners’ strikes in the east were joined by mining centres in the heartlands of western Ukrainian nationalism. In the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, support for independence did not dip below 83 percent.

The Maidan ­protests demanding the government sign the EU association agreement were small. However, the brutal response of the police changed that. In particular, it was the violence of the notorious Berkut—the “Golden Eagles”—drawn from Soviet-era OMON special police units, with a profoundly ­antisemitic culture. The Berkut went on a violent rampage, clearing protesters from the square pursuing them through the streets with clubs. The demonstrations turned into hundreds of thousands strong, more opposed to police brutality than allegiance to the EU or Russia.

In January and February, security forces resorted to deadly methods as snipers claimed the lives of both protestors and security forces. Over 100 were killed, and 2,500 were injured. Ukrainian fascists and the far right presented ­themselves both as victims and as the most determined defence against the Berkut. Chauvinists and ethno-nationalists now racked up divisions. The EU, Nato and US rushed to try and bolster a pro‑Western regime while Russia looked to stoke divisions and fears amongst ethnic Russians in the east.

Yanukovich fled to Moscow, his Party of the Regions collapsed, and a pro-Western ­government was installed. Now both the West and Russia built support for their respective proxies in Ukraine. The West supported the new Ukrainian government and its “Anti-Terrorist Operation” in the east. Russia annexed Crimea in February 2014 and lent ­material and political support to separatist forces in Donetsk and Luhansk, whose leading figures were Great Russian chauvinists. 

Igor Girkin was appointed “defence minister” of the “Donetsk People’s Republic”. He had served in the two Chechen wars and the Serb ethnic ­cleansing of Bosnia.  He helped organise proxy Russian forces in a separatist breakaway in Moldova and played a part in Russia’s annexation of Crimea. His fantasy was to restore a Russian empire of the Slavs. 

Simultaneously, the Ukrainian government appealed to the most reactionary ­ethno-nationalists, rehabilitating the legacy of Nazi collaborators involved in the ­killing of Jews in the Holocaust. Its decision to launch an “Anti‑Terrorist Operation” against the east, supported by far right and fascist volunteers, cemented divisions. 

In May 2014 far right ­nationalists, led by the Nazi Right Sector, massacred 43 ­pro-Russian protesters in Odessa in southern Ukraine. This combined with Ukrainian army units killing civilians in Mariupol polarised the views of many in the east who’d been reluctant to take sides. However, the far right, ­fascists and chauvinists on either side have never represented the majority of the Ukrainian ­population, east or west.

The Maidan and its aftermath have sometimes been wrongly depicted as a “coup” by some on the left. But the outcome of Maidan was no victory for democracy and self-determination. The tragedy of Maidan was that it fell victim to imperialist rivalry that tore Ukraine apart. Both sides now point to the most reactionary forces in the opposing camp. Both sides have their fascists and Nazis. Yet, despite divisions, there was still a tremendous desire for peace and an end to conflict before invasion. 

In a poll taken only three months ago, 35 percent of Ukrainians, excluding the ­breakaway areas in Luhansk and Donetsk, opposed joining Nato. Support was ­lowest in the east of Ukraine, which has borne the brunt of the Russian invasion. So up till the invasion, the population was still divided over Nato. Some uphold president Volodymyr Zelensky as some kind of new “Mandela figure”. 

Others cast him as a Nazi enabler. In fact, he is neither. Indeed, Zelensky, who is Jewish, was elected in a landslide second round in 2019 as a political ­outsider sweeping aside the old guard candidates. He stood on a “peace” platform and pledged to end the conflict. However, this position could not withstand the rivalries between Russia and Nato countries nor the internal pressure of the dominant pro-Western forces in the Ukrainian state.

Now Zelensky sees ­escalation of the conflict as the only response. Ukraine’s tragedy is to find itself at the centre of ­imperialist rivalry between Russia and Nato. The Minsk Agreements—negotiated in 2014 and 2015 between Russia and the EU, principally Germany and France—simply froze the conflict and the divisions within Ukraine.

Ukraine was not at the table. That “frozen conflict” only held a lid on gathering tensions. Russia intended to secure “autonomy” for the breakaway republics within Ukraine, halting any further orientation towards the EU and Nato. 

Meanwhile, the EU powers and the Ukrainian government looked to those parts of the agreements that could assist it in moving closer to Nato and the EU. By the end of 2021, Russia saw it was losing out to the superior economic weight of the EU and the Ukrainian government’s increasing military collaboration with Nato. Vladimir Putin saw this as a threat to Russian dominance over its “near abroad”—the former Soviet republics—and decided to wield brutal military might.


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