Boris Kagarlitsky: Fate of Donetsk is being decided in Kharkov

3 May, 2014 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal

By Boris Kagarlitsky, translated by Renfrey Clarke for Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal


The preliminary outcome of the revolt in south-eastern Ukraine can be described as an unstable equilibrium. Attempting to crush the Donetsk republic with the help of their armed forces, the Kiev authorities have met with defeat. The army, as expected, has refused steadfastly to wage war on its own people, and the forces of the Right Sector and National Guard have clearly been insufficient to cope even with the militia, not to speak of the mass of protestors.

There is no basis, however, for speaking as yet of victory for the Donetsk Peoples Republic. While Kiev’s “maximum plan” has consisted of quickly restoring control over Donetsk and Lugansk, its “minimum plan” has rested on restricting the open insurgency to these two provinces. It is this minimum plan which, however ineptly, is being implemented.

The militia members succeed from time to time in seizing new buildings or in raising the republic’s flag over new populated areas. These small victories raise the spirits of the resistance and in a minor way improve its tactical situation, but do not create the conditions for a strategic breakthrough.

The Donetsk and Lugansk activists would do well to recall Lenin’s much-cited formula to the effect that “defence is the ruination of a revolt.” Their actions, however, are based on a particular view of the situation, a view that is organically present not only in the movement’s leaders, but above all in a substantial section of the masses in the Ukrainian south-east. The insurgents are convinced that all they need to do is to hold out for a certain time, and Russia will then come to their aid; if this does not take the form of direct military intervention, some other mechanism will be found.

Unfortunately, every passing day since the beginning of the revolt has shown how illusory these hopes are.

In the thinking of the activists of Ukraine’s “Russian Spring” there is no particular gap between the Russian authorities, the Russian elite and society in general; the latter is perceived as completely uniform apart from a small number of liberal oppositionists, isolated within their own country. It is striking that while these activists have an excellent grasp of the contradictory nature of the political and social order within the Ukrainian state, they fail to see the identical contradictions in the fraternal country.

South-eastern Ukraine, meanwhile, has become an obvious hostage to these contradictions. Official Moscow lacks both the desire and the resolve to resort to active intervention. The maximum program of the Moscow leaders consists of holding onto Crimea, and the patriotic slogans about Slavic brotherhood are of value primarily as a tool of internal propaganda. In no way do they represent a strategy for the foreign policy of a state whose elite survives by selling the country’s national resources to the West. Of course, the Russian oligarchs would be agreeable to taking the enterprises and resources of the Ukrainian south-east under their control. But for the present, the price of this undertaking (both political and directly financial) and the associated risks are too high, and most importantly, are increasing day by day. Even if a section of the Russian elite harbours such plans and ambitions, these have now clearly been postponed. In any case, the people who make up the Russian leadership are not politicians but bureaucrats and public relations specialists, people who simply do not have either the experience or the inclination to make risky decisions that radically alter the situation. None of these people can even imagine how they would need to act under the conditions of massive crises and revolutions.

The Crimean leaders seized the initiative, and in practice, forced Moscow to agree both to the forms and also to the rapid tempo of integration, leaving the Russian bureaucrats not only without alternatives, but also without time for reflection. The situation is different in the remaining provinces of the Ukrainian south-east.

Representatives of the Donetsk republic and of the movements of the Ukrainian south-east show up constantly in Moscow, where they are received warmly and with goodwill. Meetings for them are organised with journalists and Duma deputies. Then they are sent home empty-handed. The individuals through whom official Moscow expresses its support for the “brother people” do not decide anything, and do not even take part in discussions on important questions. They are simply used to transmit propagandist formulae, and do not shape the political agenda.

Moscow cannot, of course, publicly cut off its support for the Donetsk republic. That would be a disaster in terms of domestic politics and propaganda, and the potential for disaster will be greater to the degree that today’s Russian authorities manage to build up their ratings in the course of the Ukrainian turmoil. If the revolt is smashed while Russia does nothing, the effect will automatically be to provoke mass indignation. The problem, however, lies in the fact that it is impossible to calculate everything in advance. As they try to manoeuvre and win time, the Russian authorities risk missing the crucial strategic moment when the situation flies out of control, and they are forced simply to reconcile themselves to the outcome whatever that might be.

The paradox lies in the fact that this strategic turning point will not necessarily result from some initiative by Kiev. As the rebels try to ensure that the strategic initiative finishes up in their hands, they cannot afford simply to wait for decisions by the Kremlin.  To the contrary, they need to create a new situation through their own actions, determining in advance what these decisions will be.

A breakthrough in the development of the struggle in south-eastern Ukraine will only occur when the largest regional centres, above all Kharkov and Odessa, join in the movement. Clearly, the authorities in Kiev understand this perfectly, since they are using all available means to try to maintain their control over these regions and to seal them off from the Donetsk republic. The experience of the past few days has shown that for mass protests to develop in these centres, the slogans of brotherhood with Russia and of defending the Russian language will be completely inadequate on their own.

A broadening of the social base of the uprising will depend on its program, on the goals and slogans that it advances. Against the background of an inexorably worsening economic situation, only demands aimed at satisfying the urgent needs of the masses can serve to mobilise the huge numbers of people who now sympathise with the rebel republic, but who are not ready to stand beneath its banner.

It is perfectly possible to put forward an anti-oligarchic social program today, and such a program does not even have to be exclusively left-wing or socialist. It is enough to call for nationalisation of the property of those Ukrainian oligarchs who have openly associated themselves with the Kiev regime, and to demand that these assets be directed toward the solving of social problems, toward investment in health care, education and the development of infrastructure.

In conditions of revolutionary crisis, moderation ceases to be a pragmatic virtue. To the contrary, it turns out to be suicidal. The more moderate the leaders of the Donetsk and Lugansk republic now show themselves to be, the fewer hopes they have of drawing into struggle new masses of people outside the borders of their regions. Needless to say, such actions are liable to alarm the Moscow bureaucrats who keep a constant watch over the interests of “their own” oligarchs. But as noted earlier, it is precisely the Moscow politicians who have now finished up hostages of the Ukrainian situation. If the revolt shifts to a more radical course, the authorities in Moscow will be forced to beat their breasts and voice their approval. In the same way, they were obliged in the case of Latin America to come to terms with Hugo Chavez, even though the social measures being implemented in Venezuela caused them no particular delight.

The activists and leaders of the Donetsk republic will soon have to decide – whether to perish while keeping their eyes fixed on Moscow, or to have a chance of victory through basing themselves on the social interests of their own population. They still have time to make this choice. But as each day passes, this time is running out.

One thought on “Boris Kagarlitsky: Fate of Donetsk is being decided in Kharkov

  1. Dagmar Henn says:

    Dear Mr. Kagarlitzky,

    I would like to add a few points from the German side.

    One thing is obvious, looking through German media and listening to German politics – there is no change, not even after the Odessa massacre. It´s full scale war propaganda, far above anything before. And a very weird occurence – Siemens CEO declaring publicly he would adhere to any political decision. So there is a rift between different groups of capital, there has been a hard conflict, and the side eager for war has won.
    Yes, I do have the impression we´re pushed not towards another cold war, but a hot one. The economical reason is obvious, but the hurry astounds. I did reach that conclusion looking at the time-table of the Kiew coup; after the agreement where German foreign minister Steinmeier officially accepted Swoboda as political partner there would have been no need for a coup, if the goal were simply to grasp Ukraine. But the coup took place, and it was executed by forces that guarantee an attack against Russia, with or without Krimea taking place.

    Accepting the Kiew junta as “partner” (or bandog) broke a taboo. Nothing alike happened in Europe since 1945. The original plan seems to have been to push the Ukrainian army into open conflict and then enter with NATO-troups. Failed, because the intended sacrificicial lamb was not willing, and because the uprising in South-East blocked the path. So now the method changed to violent provocation, as it took place in Odessa and will continue, applying a level of dishumanity even the Nazis reached only after several years.

    It´s still not clear why there´s such a hurry to put an armed conflict into scene; but German government´s willing cooperation cannot be based on dependancy towards the US, as the development of German hegemony in Europe openly went against US political and economical interest; there must be some cataclysm of the great crisis approaching that binds the two actors together. War on a large scale is the last trump left over.

    I´m telling all this because the informational blockade can be seen from the outside, but it´s exceptional scale and the unusual aggressivity might not be perceptible. If one suspects the aim I stated above it would be in the interest of Russian oligarchs to support even a fully fledged sowjet republic right on their doorstep. First, because it creates a useful buffer from direct provocation, and second, because it might deter attempts to repeat the Maidan scenario inside Russia itself. If the result could be a reborn, revolutionary Sowjet Union, even Deutsche Bank and Goldman might halt their steps. Any kind of covert support below crossing the borders would be not only acceptable, but wise.

    The Kiew junta is bound to continue it´s present course with all aggression it is able to muster. It needs it´s masters open intervention to keep power, as the hordes of the Right Sector might be enough to menace the uprising, but never enough to stabilize their rule in the coming economic disaster. So not only IMF command drives them towards attack, not only their ideology, but their own lack of “gangs of armed men”. Like in miniature this situation repeats itself on the south-eastern frontline. Their manpower is sufficient to intrude, even to destroy, but never to secure hostile territory for an extended period of time. As they have to reach either the Russian border or the limits of Russian patience (and the blow to the latter is planned and executed with deep historc sadism; even the Odessa massacre happened exactly on the date German Nazis stormed German union offices in 1933), they will follow a path of escalating and limitless violence. Not even comparable to the Nazis in 1933; rather like them after Goebbels declared “total war”.

    So the two small republics not only face one of the worst enemies human history invented, they are placed at the crossroads between war and peace on a global scale. A heavy weight on fledgeling shoulders. All that in a muddle of political illusions and an extremely difficult mixture of defensive and offensive qualities.

    I try to decipher the ongoing political debates mainly by reading in several online media, seriously hampered by not speaking Russian (translation programs help, but only so far… yesterday google-translator notoriously offered “German” for “fashists”, which could be a possible translation, but not in this case…). The hope of being “saved” by Russia is slowly dissolving, mainly by realization of the global consequences. But there will still be a long way to go until self-perception and political reality come close.

    I can´t know the political processes that preceded the 6th of April, but I do have the impression that what started then was some kind of accidental revolution. I derive that from the fact that a state was proclaimed, at least in Donezk, but the assumption of a state´s functions and powers happens slowly and seem to be driven by need rather than by intention. In the last few days some steps to disband the relics of the old apparatus took place, they were carried out fast, efficient and successful, but they were inevitable for reasons of security alone. On the other hand there are still requests for funding, even though it would be a logical step to seize at least Privat-bank as an enemy of state… or I read about some unknown people breaking into a weapon store, when it could simply be claimed without even surpassing the rights any government has in state of emergency. Even an open prohibition of all political activity for the Right Sector, Swoboda and Fatherland until today was only proclaimed in Slowiansk, although it would simplify a bunch of security problems…as if it were not understood yet that they created a new state that can and has to give itself new laws, that not only the armed power of an old state dissappeared in the moment the protest turned into a revolution, but all it´s legal system as well, as it is inevitably bound to it´s material base.

    Trying to guess through the fog of language and distance, I perceive a really astonishing coalition from traditional leninists to staunch orthodox monarchists. Obviously shaped by the needs of defence against fashism (somehow a reflection of the anti-Hitler-coalition), this combination might prove difficult when the character of the political structure, which is offensive and not defensive, develops. On the other hand there is a fundamental difference between their situation and, let´s say, 1917. There is no chance to improve the economic situation of the masses on the base of a capitalist economy; it would lead back to exactly the same point they find themselves today; even in an area so richly gifted as Donbass the basic contradiction of capitalist production can´t be controlled any longer, and the perspective would be only further deindustrialization and impoverishment. The whole oligarchic structure of the former state in itself is already a sign of the impossibility of profitable production. So for the first time there might be a development towards socialism out of necessity, not out of decision, and that could change quite some of the political questions.

    There are incredible acts of bravery to be seen, unarmed people surrounding tanks, shouting them down and forcing them to flee or to surrender, a very real strength of mass movement, and, yes, I share your view, a clear class character (funny debate about that few weeks ago with some Trotzkyists here in Munich, for whom miners taking up arms was not enough to prove that, as they missed the political strike on their list). But while people are already saving themselves, they still expect to be saved. While they are creating a new state and defending it at gunpoint, their political thoughts circle about a referendum, which will either be superfluous, if the new state survives, or naught, if it doesn´t. A federation, which is an impossibility as long as the present Kiew junta survives, or simply entering Russia, which would be an enourmous step backwards in political development and definitely in the interest of neither of the two states as long as the present exterior menace exists. In the areas I can access from outside, there is nearly no debate about character, shape and goals of the new state, while at the same time new political structures arise and the old political formations disappear.

    Until now it seems all thoughts end on the day of referendum. But time doesn´t stop on that date, and the needs of warfare will dictate not only the seizure of one or the other piece of property, but also the creation of a type of economic planning, as even under capitalist conditions war economies are planned ones. There is a very strong incentive into the right direction, even stronger under conditions of severe economic crisis. It will be necessary to develop one or the other type of structure down to the level of town quarters and streets; for security reasons as much as for the formation of political process. There will have to be some kind of election, but there aren´t even parties to elect, as the old ones are invalidated and new ones couldn´t form, and the criteria of eligibility seem to shift anyway. Though the two centers seem to follow opposing strategies in the sequence of political and military development, they might in the end resolve to combine both. Or they did already, and it just isn´t visible from afar.

    But it will be far more complicated to include Kharkow and Odessa. The latter at the moment seems to fall victim to full scale open terror by Kiew, and if the existing structures of power don´t shatter under the pressure completely and in the next few days, it will turn into a matter of conquest and no longer of political action, and the only support the new state can give in the short term will be as zone of withdrawal. The same question might arise for Kharkow with just a few days of delay. Though it could be that the Kiew regime overstretched it´s resources and breaks down, if the existing centers withstand the onslaught, as without fulfilling their orders there will be no money from nowhere, mercenaries are expensive and the situation is unstable not only in the sout-east. That would leave the new state as the only formed political power around and create a completely new situation.

    We all have to hope they withstand. Because not only the global crisis is focused there at the moment, but also the hope for it´s solution. It´s time for the people of Donbass, beleagered as they are, to realize what they already achieved. Willing or unwilling, knowing or not, their actions were the first steps of real working class offensive in Europe since the carnation revolution in Portugal 1974. This is an enormous event, needed and hoped for. The door is open again.

    With kind regards from Munich,

    Dagmar Henn


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