As forces of republics declared in Donetsk and Luhansk have seized ground from the government based in Kiev, the White House has publicly weighed the option of sending weapons openly to the Ukrainian military and its auxiliary fascist-led militias. Top officials in Washington and in capitals of Europe are scrambling to shape NATO and U.S. policy. Will the President commit the U.S. to the victory of one side in a civil war on the border of Russia, by announcing the supply of large weapons? Is the U.S. close to a major military confrontation with a nuclear-armed power?
While politicians and media use the word “defensive” to describe the weapons in question, all the fighting in Ukraine is in territory of the rebel forces. The weapons would be used to wage offensives in this territory. They would be used knowingly against forces that Washington claims include Russian units that are supplied by Russia. U.S. weapons are often delivered with “advisers” and “trainers.” The supply of weapons to a regime involved in a civil war is rightly seen by all as an engagement and a commitment of U.S. resources. It is worth paying attention to.
On February 12, as we write, officials from Ukraine, Russia, Germany, and France have agreed on a 13-point agreement, including removal of heavy weaponry from the area, a cease-fire, and “special status” for regions resisting the Kiev government. A New York Times report noted, however, that the agreement is “fragile” and that the talks “appeared on the verge of collapse” as they concluded.
Policy debate between Washington and European officials
Secretary of State John Kerry told members of Congress that he supports providing weapons to Ukraine. President Obama said that he is considering such action. The White House claims that the war waged by the government in Ukraine is one of self-defense against Russian incursions. In effect it endorses the Ukrainian President’s rejection of any settlement with the Donetsk and Luhansk forces, which responded to the February 2014 coup d’état by proclaiming separate republics.
On the other hand, the German Prime Minister Angela Merkel has sought to solve the problem of Ukraine by diplomacy. The argument is that no quantity of weapons could defeat Russia. French diplomats have participated in the German effort. Their intention is to revive an agreement signed last September, in Minsk, Byelorus, among the forces based in Kiev and Donetsk; Russia; and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). A revival of the Minsk agreement could include a demilitarized zone around the current front lines between Southeastern and Western Ukraine.
U.S. representatives did not participate in the February 12 agreement. Instead, they placed on the table the possibility of supplying weapons to the well-armed Ukrainian state. Representatives of the declared republics of Donetsk and Lugansk were brought in only late in the talks. Likewise, semi-autonomous fascist military units like those that carried forward the putsch in Kiev a year ago, and have committed atrocities since in Eastern Ukraine, are not reported to have made commitments to the new accord.
The agreement occurred as rebel military units, since the September Minsk agreement, had increased by more than 200 square miles the territory not under Kiev’s control. And in recent days, rebel units have surrounded 8,000 Ukrainian troops in the town of Debaltseve. Thus, Washington reserves the option to tear up the second Minsk agreement, just as it destroyed the agreement on the Ukrainian crisis in February. This practice is not unlike the US rejection of the 1954 Geneva accord between France and Vietnam, prior to the U.S. invasion of Vietnam.
U.S. backs war waged by coup regime
For the first time since World War II, fascist parties have been included in a European government with the approval of the United States. Ukrainian fascists celebrate the memory of Stepan Bandera, who led a movement that collaborated with the Nazi war machine. The Azov Battalion is part of the Ukrainian military forces, and uses symbols associated with the ultra-right and is known by scholars and journalists to be associated with the Social-National Assembly, an ultra-right coalition. The ultra-right militias are known as perpetrators of crimes in Eastern Ukraine.
The Kiev government has marked the rebel forces for extermination, calling them “terrorists.” It has used artillery against residential districts. It has rejected any settlement that fails to roll back the advances of the rebels. It canceled an offer of partial autonomy for Donetsk and Luhansk in November because the rebel forces organized local elections at that time.
The New York Times notes the use of cluster bombs by the Ukrainian military. The U.N. reports more than a hundred episodes of shelling of populated areas in November alone. Five thousand people have been killed in this civil war, and a million have fled their homes, in a conflict area containing five million souls.
Rather than disbanding when the Soviet bloc collapsed 25 years ago, NATO expanded its operations and membership. NATO officials have regularly issued statements about the situation in Ukraine, as if Ukraine were a member or as if NATO countries like Poland were about to be invaded. Reuters reports, “NATO Defence ministers say the time has come to do more to protect Eastern Ukraine against interference from Russia. Meeting in Brussels, they’re expected to more than double the size of their rapid reaction force to 30,000 soldiers and sign off on a network of command centres.”
How is the U.S. left responding?
Left and antiwar groups in the U.S. are debating what is happening in Ukraine. Yet, they hold back from uniting their forces to protest the expansion of NATO and the threat of NATO commitment in a region that Russia considers vital to its economy and defense. We are led to ask: Does the Ukraine situation and NATO policy matter to socialists?
Responses on the left have ranged from advocating victory for the Donetsk forces to publicizing the views of “socialist nationalist” Ukrainian left groups. These organizations emphasize keeping Ukraine together and reject the both sides in the military conflict. The United National Antiwar Committee has won publicity and also criticism by its participation in an “Anti-Globalization” conference in Moscow. Some on the political left claim that Russia is an imperialist country seeking dominance over Ukraine, while others argue that Russia is an ordinary nation under attack, like Ukraine, from the west.
Russian organizations campaigning for what is called “Novorossiya” (new Russia) in Ukraine include right-wing elements. Some of them have succeeded in linking up with European and U.S. rightist groups. Efforts on the left to work with these groups are likely to backfire. Temptations to embrace the leaderships or perspectives of the main rebel groups in Eastern Ukraine are quite risky as well, in view of credible reports of abuses there. However, it is not necessary to embrace or condemn the Donetsk and Luhansk forces in order to oppose U.S. and NATO war moves.
For example, in a Socialist Party National Action Committee statement, the Socialist Party USA explicitly condemned any NATO or U.S. involvement in the developing Ukraine crisis. (It also called for Russian troops to withdraw from occupied areas and to halt any proposed intervention.) Antiwar activity is one of the four campaigns initiated by the 2013 SP convention.
In an interview, Greg Pason, the Chair of the Party’s Anti-War Commission, commented about the debates about Ukraine on the left, “We need to look outside of those internal left fights. In New Jersey, Party members are involved in organizing a series of discussions with other organizations, including NJ Peace Action. We hope to find ways to discuss these issues with the general public and build connections to activists, most of whom are not part of those internal debates and do not come from pre-determined positions.”
Our priority is determined by the actions of the country in which we live. The U.S. has waged war for resources and military-economic dominance in Latin America, Asia, Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. The interventions in Afghanistan and elsewhere show that NATO is an offensive alliance. Despite their differences, antiwar and left groups can cooperate to expose the danger of a U.S. military commitment in Ukraine, that may lead to a war in Europe. It is urgent now for these voices for peace step up.