Ukraine and Russia: edging towards disaster

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In the year since the February 2014 coup against President Yanukovych over 6,000 Ukrainians have been killed in battle, 15,000 wounded and more than one million people displaced. The second Minsk ceasefire agreement between Ukraine’s government and its opponents in the south east of the country came into effect on 14 February 2015. However, the US and NATO continue to provoke conflict and are using Ukraine to target the Russian state. Trevor Rayne reports.

The ceasefire deal was made by the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany. At the time, between 8,000 Ukrainian government troops were surrounded by opposition soldiers in Debaltseve. French President Hollande and German Chancellor Merkel feared the conflict could escalate and spread in Europe and that Ukraine was facing collapse. After the Minsk agreement was signed, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) approved $17.5bn to bail out Ukraine’s government. Included in the ceasefire terms are provisions for limited self-rule in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, delivery of humanitarian aid to war afflicted areas, and the resumption of government payments of salaries and pensions in the south east. Before the end of 2015 Ukraine’s government is to regain control of the border with Russia. Opposition forces agreed to withdraw heavy weapons from the frontline.

At the end of February 2015 Ukraine’s government said that 70 of its soldiers had been killed since the ceasefire. In March, Ukraine’s parliament passed a law saying that devolved powers would only come into effect after the election of regional officials in the south east under Ukrainian law. The opposition said this undermined the commitment to self-rule. Ukraine’s parliament called for United Nations or European Union (EU) peacekeepers to be sent to the south east; opposition leaders want Russian peacekeepers instead. Opposition forces remain outside the port of Mariupol, which, if it fell to them, would create a land bridge between Russia and Crimea. The fascist Right Sector party, Ukrainian foreign minister and powerful oligarchs oppose any autonomy for the south east.

Ukraine’s government is an auxiliary of the US state. On 2 December 2014 Natalie Jaresko, a US-born citizen, was given Ukrainian citizenship and appointed as Ukraine’s finance minister that same day. Jaresko is a former US State Department official responsible for overseas investments and co-founded Horizon Capital, a private equity firm in Ukraine. The investment bank Lazard, based in the London, New York and Paris, acts for the Ukraine government in negotiations with its creditors. Ukraine’s government seeks $40bn to cover future payments; it has $8bn in external debt repayments due in 2015 but foreign exchange reserves of just $5.6bn. In return for the $17.5bn the IMF insists the Ukrainian government raise the retirement age, remove energy subsidies and sack 230,000 public sector workers (mainly teachers and doctors).

Ukraine’s economy is collapsing: in the year to February 2015, industrial production fell by 21%; inflation is 25%; one in five Ukrainian bank loans are ‘non-performing’; and Ukraine’s is the world’s worst-performing currency, falling 40% in the first two months of 2015.

There are protests across Ukraine. People have tried to stop the forced conscription of young men into the army. There are protests at rising food prices, transport costs, salary and pension freezes, and coal miners marched in Kiev demanding their wages be paid. In response repression is increasing; 7,000 political prisoners are detained by the national police, journalists have been gaoled, demonstrators accused of being Russian agents and a bill is before parliament criminalising protest against the government’s war efforts and economic policies.

Three minutes to midnight

This March the US is sending 300 and Britain 75 soldiers to train Ukrainian state forces. While Germany and France were seeking a ceasefire, British Prime Minister Cameron explained the British government’s position relative to that of other EU countries: ‘Britain’s role is to be at the tougher end of the spectrum, to try to keep the European Union and the United States together … we should be clear about this pattern of behaviour we’ve seen from Putin now over many years.’ Britain will supply Ukraine with £850,000 of ‘non-lethal’ military equipment. Russia views any NATO supply of weapons to Ukraine as an act of war.

Under cover of opposing Russian intervention in Ukraine, the US and NATO are preparing for military confrontation with Russia. NATO is establishing command centres in Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia overseeing 5,000 troops. In March NATO conducted military exercises in Eastern Europe and naval exercises in the Black Sea. The NATO Secretary General denounced the 2008 Russia-Georgia peace agreement that ended Georgia’s invasion of South Ossetia. The US government’s 2016 budget proposal includes an additional $168m to ‘counter Russian aggressive acts’, $117m for Ukraine, $51m for Georgia and Moldova and $789m strengthening NATO in Europe.

The Danish government said it will equip frigates with radar systems used by NATO’s missile defence shield. Responding, Russia’s ambassador to Denmark warned that if Denmark does this ‘then Danish ships will be targets for Russia’s nuclear weapons. Denmark will be part of the threat to Russia’. The Danish foreign ministry said: ‘Russia knows full well that NATO’s missile defence system is not aimed at them’ but at ‘rogue states and terrorist organisations’. Tensions are growing; Russia possesses the world’s largest stockpile of nuclear weapons. The hands on the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ Doomsday Clock have been moved: from five to three minutes to midnight.

The economic assault on Russia continues: following on US and EU sanctions, the EU has blocked Hungary’s €12bn deal with Russia to build two nuclear reactors; Russia’s Gazprom faces a fine of 10% of its revenues for breaking EU anti-trust pricing rules. The US wants to foment opposition within Russia to the Putin-led government by undermining Russian living standards and threatening Russian oligarchs’ access to markets and money. Russia’s inflation has risen to 15% and real wages have dropped by 10%; car sales are down 38% over the year. Russia’s second biggest bank VTB’s bad loans’ provision doubled in 2014. The Russian government has exchange reserves of $356.7bn to support the banks, but is using funds that finance state pensions to do so. Overall central bank reserves are down $130bn in a year, including tens of billions spent defending the rouble.

EU sanctions on Russia are due to expire this July, but Britain, Poland, Scandinavia and the Baltic countries want them extended, as does the US. France, Italy, Spain, the Czech Republic and Slovakia oppose extending sanctions; they say that sanctions will jeopardise the Minsk agreement. The German establishment magazine Der Spiegel criticised NATO’s top commander in Europe, US General Breedlove, for warmongering talk about supposed Russian troop numbers and movements along Ukraine’s border and saying a full-scale Russian invasion could take place at any time. EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said Europe needed its own army to deter Russia. Such an army would render NATO redundant. No doubt French, German and other European ruling classes are having second thoughts about risking their countries being turned into piles of radiated dust as a sacrifice to the US quest for global domination.

The mouthpiece of the City of London, the Financial Times, shares no such inhibitions. In an article discussing the assassination of the Russian opposition politician Boris Nemstov, it stated, ‘When a government starts murdering its critics in the streets, it has crossed the line into barbarism’ (3 March 2015). The Financial Times has no idea who killed Nemstov; Russian prosecutors say it was a Chechen group. The Financial Times is part of a campaign to condition people into accepting conflict with Russia, to march into Armageddon. We must stop imperialism before it ends civilisation.

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 244 April/May 2015