Ukraine currently stands at the centre of a geo-political battle by the United States and the European Union to isolate and militarily surround Russia and China and minimise the wider influence of Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and the Customs Union of Russian, Belarus and Kazakhstan. In this battle the United States and Germany have adopted somewhat different tactics and have somewhat divergent interests but were both deeply implicated in the February 2014 coup against the elected government of Ukraine and in the subsequent establishment of a regime in which openly fascist forces have a significant place. These notes seek to explain the background
In 1990 the Ukraine had the second biggest GDP in the SU after the Russia Federation. It specialised in metallurgy, coal, aircraft, motor production and space craft as well as agriculture. Its population grew from 38m in 1952 to 52m in 1991. In the ten years after the dismantling of the Soviet Union its GDP fell to 40 per cent of the previous level. Almost all sectors of the economy were privatised. The population has fallen sharply, to 45m in 2012. Living standards collapsed. Per capita income is now $6,700.
A multi-national country
The borders of Ukraine today were defined in 1945. Historically this geographical area had straddled the Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman and Russia empires and included Hungarians, Romanians, Poles, Slavic Ukrainians, Russians and Europe’s largest Jewish community. Kiev had been the historic base for Russian Orthodox Christianity and for the first Russian state.
In December 1917, a Soviet government was declared in Kiev. It was quickly driven east by pro-Axis forces of Germany and Austria and, after the Treaty of Brest Litovsk, into exile. After the defeat of the Axis powers in 1918 the revolutionary movement redeveloped and a Ukrainian Soviet Republic was formed in March 1919. In the wars of Western intervention that followed most of western Ukraine was absorbed into Poland and the south-west into Romania. The Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic became a member state of the USSR in 1922, although western, mainly British, intervention sustained right-wing nationalist resistance into the 1930s.
In the late 1930s the Ukrainian nationalists in both Polish occupied Ukraine and the Soviet Ukraine switched allegiance to Nazi Germany and were heavily financed to undertake subversive activities. In June 1941 their leader Stepan Bandera established a quisling state and adopted an “elimination” policy against the very large Jewish population. Bandera was removed by the Nazis in December 1941 but reinstated in November 1944 to mobilise resistance to the advancing Soviet army. Under the Nazis about 3m Ukrainians were killed, most of them Jewish but including many non-Jews involved in the resistance. The great bulk of the population in Soviet eastern Ukraine, industrialised in the 1920s and 30s, opposed the Nazi occupation and fought with Soviet forces.
In 1991, after Yeltsin’s dissolution of the Soviet Union, the previous third Secretary of the Ukrainian party, Leonid Kravchuk, became President, took pro-Western positions and initiated a process of rapid privatisation, creating powerful clans of industrial oligarchs. He was replaced in 1994 by Leonid Kuchma, whose power base was in Eastern Ukraine, and who followed a policy of closer alignment with Yeltsin’s oligarch government in Russia. He left office in 2004. All the contenders for political power in the period since served as ministers under Kuchma: Julia Timoshenko, Viktor Yushchenko and Viktor Yanukovych. All head, or headed, oligarch clans. The Communist Party was re-formed in the 1990s. The party has a significant base in southern and eastern Ukraine, mainly among industrial workers. It has actively campaigned against privatisation and oligarch rule. In the 2012 parliamentary elections it secured 13.1 per cent of the vote.
The replacement of Yeltsin by Putin in 2000 saw the United States revising its policies in Eastern Europe and seeking to pull frontline states, Belarus, Georgia and Ukraine, into alignment with NATO. It gave active backing to Viktor Yushchenko and Julia Timoshenko in their bid to prevent Viktor Yanukovych succeeding Kuchma in the 2004 presidential election. Yushenko, a leading oligarch, had previously been a member of Bandera’s OUN. His wife, a US citizen, had worked in the State department and White House under Reagan and was Vice Chair of the US-Ukraine Committee.
The Orange Revolution was the result, with major mobilisations in the nationalist west forcing the annulment of the election and the holding of new elections which returned Yushchenko as president and Timoshenko as prime minister. In 2010 Yushenko awarded Bandera the title of “Hero of the Ukraine”. Ukrainian troops were sent to assist NATO forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. The two oligarch clans of Yushenko and Timoshenko subsequently fell out, and this, combined with the impact of the 2008 economic crisis, allowed Yanukovych to return as president in the 2010 election on a policy of non-alignment. Yanukovych represented oligarch interests principally oriented towards trading with Russia but has pursued highly opportunist policies, playing off the EU and Russia for the best results. In October 2013, he won a vote in parliament allowing him to negotiate for associate membership of the EU. Only the Communist MPs voted against. Then in December he reversed his position to seek a closer relationship with the proposed Customs Union of Belarus, Russia and Kazakhstan. This resulted in mass protests and the occupation the central square and adjacent public buildings in Kiev, the Maidan. By January 2015 the occupation was dominated by right-wing nationalists and fascists.
The Communist Party of Ukraine
The party had approaching 100,000 members in 2014. In 2012 it secured 32 seats in the parliament. The party characterised the February events at the time as a coup which threatened civil war and the disintegration of the Ukrainian state. Since the February coup it has been the main target of right-wing and fascist violence. Its offices have been burnt, members killed and its deputies repeatedly excluded from the parliament. On 22 July, President Poroshenko signed into law a decree giving parliament the power to ban political parties from the Rada. On 24 July, the speaker of the Rada, Fatherland Party member, Turchynov, successfully moved a motion banning the party from Rada. The public prosecutor was ordered to set in motion court action to proscribe membership of the party. The court hearings began in July 2014. In February 2015 the judges collectively resigned claiming that they had been subjected to undue pressure to ban the party.
Although the CP Ukraine opposes any alignment with the EU, it had called in 2013 for a referendum on the issue. It also called for an end to the presidential system and the establishment of a parliamentary republic with a significant measure of federalism and elections based on proportional representation.
It points out that any free trade treaty with the EU would wipe out the Ukraine’s shipbuilding, motor and aircraft industries and only benefit those oligarch clans trading in raw materials and those who have seized control of Ukraine’s land resources.
In December 2013, it condemned the Yanukovych government’s handling of the protests but highlighted the level of US, German and NATO intervention and the degree to which there has been active support for extreme right-wing politicians. Senator John McCain shared a platform in December with the leader of the fascist Svoboda party, Oleh Tyahnybok, who shortly before had led a 15,000 march through Kiev in honour of the Nazi, Stepan Bandera. The Secretary General of NATO, Anders Rasmusen, described the proposed EU pact as “a major boost to Euro-Atlantic security”.
In the October 2014 elections the CP Ukraine secured just under 4 per cent of the vote, and failed to secure a place in the Rada after losing its main voting bases in the East of the country and Crimea.
The pro-coup forces
The main pro-coup forces were:
- Timoschenko’s Fatherland Party, based in the west and with 25 per cent of the vote in the 2012 election, historically looking back to Bandera and with strong US links.
- the pro-EU German-funded Democratic Alliance of “the boxer” Klychkov (13 per cent in 2012).
- the fascist Svoboda (9 per cent in 2012). The Fatherland Party and Svoboda fought the 2012 election in an electoral pact. Svoboda controlled several cities in Western Ukraine and had been erecting statues to Bandera and destroying Soviet war memorials.
- However, much of the street mobilisation was organised by even harder line neo-Nazi elements, Spilna Sprava (Common Cause), Trizub (Trident) and Right Sector.
The US state department was closely involved in mobilising support for the Maidan protests and subsequent events. The official with primary responsibility is Victoria Nuland, Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasia. Previously foreign policy adviser to Cheney, she is married to Robert Kagan, co-founder of the Project for a New American Century. On 13 December 2013, she told an International Business Conference on Ukraine that the US was committed to defending democratic forces in Ukraine and had spent $5bn over the previous decade inside Ukraine to support them.
On 5 February, two weeks before the coup, she was recorded talking on the phone to the US Ambassador in Kiev. She described the need for urgent intervention to pull together a replacement government, and her discussions with Ban Ki-Moon, UN Sec Gen, to send an envoy to Kiev, the previous Dutch ambassador, to do so, and openly said “F..k the EU” which she accused of failing to act. She named Yatseniuk as the man the US backed as the new prime minister.
On 19 February , five days before the coup, the Wall Street Journal carried a feature quoting State Department sources calling for action. “Ceding Ukraine to Moscow could turn into a broader undermining of Western credibility”. The feature reminded readers of the active policy previously pursued by the Bush administration in containing Russia and expanding the sphere of Western influence in Eurasia. Support had been given to the Rose Revolution in Georgia, trade and military agreements made with the central Asian republics and backing accorded to the Orange revolution in the Ukraine in 2004. The Obama administration, it argued, had squandered these gains by concentrating on the domestic agenda, shifting its foreign policy focus to Asia and believing it could secure a detente with Russia.
Recently, however, perceptions had started to change. Outwitted over Syria, the State Department had hardened its position on Putin’s Russia and what it saw as the attempt to build a counterweight to the US in world affairs. More specifically the State Department saw the possibility of exploiting a “policy asymmetry” in Eastern Europe.
For the West the Ukraine was not itself of great economic significance. For Putin, by contrast, it was central. Any attempt to redevelop an economic and political bloc in Eastern Europe and Asia, depended for its credibility on the involvement of Ukraine. Belarus and Kazakhstan by themselves would not be enough. By intervening here, the West could land a major strategic blow on Russia at only limited economic cost. The US had therefore given full backing to the initiative of the European Union last year to offer “associate status” to the Ukraine in return for internal “economic and political reform”.
Poroshenko, War, NATO
In 1989-1992, Poroshenko used his position in the Kiev State University International Economic Relations Department to start international trading in cocoa beans. By the 1990s he had developed a monopoly control over Ukraine’s confectionary industry. Politically he supported Kuchma and added the auto-industry, shipyards and a major TV channel (Channel 5) to his holdings in the 2000s. He was associated with Yushchenko in the Orange revolution and became a member of subsequent governments. He faced a number of accusations of corruption and it was mutual accusations of corruption between Poroshenko and Yulia Timoshenko that led to the fall of her government. He became Foreign Minister under Yushchenko in 2009-2010 when he supported closer links with the EU and NATO. He gave financial support to the Maidan protest in December 2013 and used his TV Channel 5 to mobilise support. He represents a “centrist” or opportunist position in Ukrainian politics, not the ideologically nationalist right, and has close links with the EU.
The military action by the Kiev regime against the Eastern regions had by early 2015 resulted in over 5,000 deaths, many of them civilians, and the displacement of over 300,000 people as refugees. Some estimates put the number at closer to one million, if those moving to relatives in Russia are included. The spearhead of the Kiev forces was composed of “volunteer battalions” made of extreme right wing elements. The biggest, the Azoz battalion, uses the same emblems and flags as the Nazi SS in the last war.
In the final year of the Soviet Union, the US and the Soviet Union announced an agreement that the former SU territories would remain neutral and never become part of NATO—Baker Gorbachov agreement, 9 February 1990. Under GW Bush’s presidency the US adopted an aggressive strategy of NATO expansion in violation of this agreement. Russia has maintained its position that Ukraine should remain non-aligned.
On 29 August 2014, the prime minister Yatseniuk asked the Rada to annul Ukraine’s non-aligned status ahead of the NATO summit to enable a request for NATO membership. The NATO summit, in September 2014, announced the intent to take Ukraine into membership.
The US has taken the lead in introducing sanctions and pressurising the EU to follow. The US introduced sanctions against senior Russian political figures in March 2014. In August, EU/US discussions resulted in an agreement for joint economic sanctions. These mainly targetted financial institutions and became operative from 12 September. Russian gas, on which most EU countries rely, was excluded. In response, Russia has announced sanctions against imports from EU countries. The economic impact is likely to be far more severe for the EU than the US.
The ceasefire 12 point proposals agreed at Minsk, on 5 September, were pushed through by Poroshenko, an ally of Merkel, and opposed by Yatseniuk, closely aligned with the US and the far-right.
If adhered to, the Poroskenko 12 points offer most of what the Russian speaking districts want: federalism, local economy autonomy, amnesty, prisoner exchange. On 16 September, the Rada passed a law ratifying autonomy despite opposition from the Fatherland party and Yatsenyuk. However, the October 2014 election results, in which, in a very low poll, right-wing revanchist parties outperformed Poroshenko, could well presage further military action. (CPB Notes)