Eastern Ukraine: Popular Uprising, Conspiracy, or Civil War?

The Russian website OpenLeft.ru has been a source of sober and vital analysis of the Ukrainian crisis from the very start. Below we present translations from texts that recently appeared on OpenLeft, providing a range of views from the left on the situation in Ukraine: an interview with Ukrainian sociologist and Left Opposition activist Nina Potarskaya, and responses from activists and analysts in Moscow and Kyiv.

The reader will note that the Russian and Ukrainian left, like the Western left, has split on the question of Maidan. For the most part, this left, while critical of the nationalist elements that predominated during the street protests and the neoliberal agenda that now dominates the new government, has been supportive of Maidan and opposed to the separatist movement in Southeastern Ukraine, which it sees as an extension of Russian imperialism. At the same time, as seen below in the contribution by Alexei Sakhnin of the Left Front, some have taken the position that the new government in Kyiv must be resisted at all costs, and that the uprising in the Southeast represents a potentially liberatory movement.

Many of the facts on the ground remain in dispute, any definitive statements of who is involved in what should be treated with skepticism, and all opinions right now ought to be listened to. However, it’s worth noting that in our view Elena Galkina, in her contribution, underplays some of the violence against government forces and supporters that went on at Maidan; Sakhnin, in his contribution, systematically understates the role of Russia in the events in eastern Ukraine. In particular he asserts that none of the people arrested for separatist activity have been Russian–this is almost certainly untrue.

In light of the recent events, it is noteworthy to add that the newly elected president, Pyotr Poroshenko, has promised to accelerate the “anti-terrorist operation” in the East, making it all the more important to understand what is happening there.

The texts have been translated by Katia Zoritch and the Russia Desk.

Interview with Nina Potarskaya

Open Left: The logic of civil war is increasingly swallowing everything in Ukraine that is not civil war, whether they be political arguments or ideas for unity. Ukrainian leftists, who were already a minor force, have split [over the question of Maidan], and are now crossing ever further points of no return. We’re witnessing a great deal of infantilism and myopia on the part of the left movement—after all, the moment may soon come where only a united left can save the situation. What is your view of the current situation for the Ukrainian left—on the adequacy of its reaction to events and the possibilities for united action in the future?

Nina Potarskaya: When Maidan came, we were already divided—we didn’t have a shared understanding of what was happening, and, to be honest, Maidan uncovered the total uselessness of our movement and brought to the surface disagreements and schizophrenia that had previously been suppressed. When Maidan began there were those on the left who totally supported it, and those who supported it critically, and those who completely rejected it. For example, the anarchists were able to enter the structures of Maidan and set up an anarchist brigade. We, the Left Opposition, came to Maidan but tried to introduce our ideas into the agenda and shift the emphasis within the protest. And then there was Borotba, which refused to support Maidan from the very start because of the large presence of nationalists in it. So from the very start we had different views of the situation.

There were moments when we all came together, for example the protests against Berkut—this was an organic situation for the left, of protesting against the state and its police. But then there was the fateful seizure [in early March] of the Kharkiv administration building by nationalists and other forces from Maidan, including the leftist writer Sergey Zhadan, and after that people carrying the flags of another leftist group [Borotba – n+1] were among those who attacked and beat Zhadan and the others. And these leftists were accused, in my view fairly, of being on the side of nationalist forces, but pro-Russian rather than pro-Ukrainian ones. And at that point leftsists became divided on the question of whether it was possible to work with Ukrainian nationalists, or with Russian nationalists, or whether it was impossible to work with either, or whether one could work with one of them but only in a particular manner . . . But the fact was that one or the other group of nationalists was at the head of the movement, of both movements, and leftists had to follow their lead one way or the other.

Are there still possibilities for coming together on the left? Before the massacre in Odessa [on May 2, when street fighting between armed pro-Russia separatists and pro-Ukrainian soccer fans and nationalists led to the deaths of over forty people—most of them from the pro-Russian side, when they were trapped in a burning building attacked by pro-Ukraine forces – n+1], we held a conference at our Center for the Study of Society where people argued that social protest could unite Ukraine, since the demands of the protesters in both the East and the West were social and economic first of all, that is, were the same. Members of the Left Opposition traveled to the eastern regions—to Kharkiv, Donetsk, Dnipropetrovsk, Slavyansk—and conducted polls that confirmed this. But after Odessa, the chances of this kind of unification have dwindled. We’ve crossed another point of no return, where anarchists on the one hand and activists from Borotba on the other have found themselves on different sides of the barricades. As a result one activist from Borotba was killed, and one of the anarchists was wounded. It’s impossible to ignore this—just a few months ago these people attended leftist actions together! But soon enough anarchists and Borotbists won’t be able to speak to one another.

Open Left: And yet is there still a reason to hope for the formation of a broad-based force that could oppose the logic of civil war?

Potarskaya: With further and further killings this seems more and more impossible, and it becomes harder to talk with one another. In Kyiv they’re calling for the blood of the separatists, and in Luhansk they’re calling for the blood of the nationalists. . . It’s possible that later we’ll spend our lives regretting the fact that because of our disorganization we [on the left] were unable to convince people to unite around their social protest. And here’s another thing: the interviews of Left Opposition activists in Eastern Ukraine, and Western Ukraine, and Crimea found that the leaflet with 10 socioeconomic demands, written for Maidan, on Maidan, has a lot of support everywhere. [An appeal circulated by the Left Opposition at Maidan, calling for the implementation of people power over oligarchic power, the nationalization of major industrial enterprises and worker control over those enterprises, a radically increased taxation on the rich “on the model of Denmark,” free education and health care, a refusal to work with the IMF (“following the example of Iceland”), and the cancelation of the Berkut riot police]. In the east people support each point except the cancelation of Berkut, which they consider to be their defense against the fascist junta. But these same people, who talk about the same problems, then put on different-colored ribbons and go off to kill one another. And as for the left, we, sadly, were unprepared to make ourselves heard even during the time of peaceful protests; during the actual fighting we can’t even be noticed at all.

Open Left: What is your central strategy now? A class-based protest that’s independent of nationalist rhetoric, and the creation of a third force?

Potarskaya: We’re working on it. We’re traveling to the east to look for trade union activists or other activists who are willing to talk about a social program that could somehow unite Maidan and anti-Maidan. For example in Krivyi Rih [a city in central Ukraine where coal miners have been striking for back wages] during the strike the miners created a brigade that kept there from being any violence from either (the pro-Ukraine or pro-Russia) side.

We still hope that this kind of strategy could be a way out of the situation. In this sense we’ve also been inspired by Krasnodon [a city in the Luhansk region where miners also went on strike]. But maybe these hopes are naïve when right now all across Ukraine there are groups that are genuinely armed. I wouldn’t call on the miners to arm themselves and become a third armed force.

A recent poll found that 40 percent of Ukrainians want talks [between the government and the separatists], whereas 35 percent oppose the separatists and support the Anti-Terrorist Operation [what the government is calling the attempted destruction of the separatist fighters by force; ATO]. Right now the 35 percent dominate the media and politics, whereas the 40 percent are silent or unable to make themselves heard. Will they be able to gain a voice?

Under any circumstances, 40 percent isn’t a great proportion; under the current circumstances, these 40 percent can’t be heard against the backlash after every action of the authorities—people either want to go pick up a Kalashnikov, because they’re terrified by the information they’re receiving, or they want to bury their heads in the sand and not hear anything. These 40 percent who support negotiations, how can you make them speak? All the Kyiv bloggers who were active during Maidan are now unanimously demanding that the government go and destroy the separatists—that’s the state of the Kyiv intelligentsia right now.

Open Left: What can be proposed—institutionally, organizationally—right now in place of the ATO and the insane referendums [for “independence,” in the East – n+1]?

Potarskaya: All-Ukrainian parliamentary elections. We proposed holding them immediately months ago, because the east and Crimea had no representatives in the Rada. We’re also unsure that under the current circumstances the office of the presidency is necessary—we’d prefer a parliamentary republic. But there aren’t any simple solutions. Obviously the ATO needs to be halted. In terms of more achievable tactical goals, there are strikes right now in Krivhi Roh and Kharkiv, and we could at the very least help them get more attention in the media as well as some minimal legal assistance.

Open Left: Could unpopular actions on the part of the government, as they are informed by their obligations to the IMF, help create a unified protest movement?

Potarskaya: Yes, in that sense the government has been helpful. [Prime Minister Arseny] Yatsenyuk says that they’re going to take unpopular measures. These will, as usual, affect ordinary people and not big business. They’re going to raise prices, including utilities, and meanwhile there’s a big problem with salaries—inflation is rising, but salaries are not. This meets the main demands of the IMF, but not the demands of those who came to Maidan. So that situation getting worse could serve to unite a new opposition.

Open Left: Is it possible the government is interested in worsening the situation in the East so as to deflect attention from the unpopular measures it means to pass?

Potarskaya: It’s notable that of all the reports we’ve generated from the Center for the Study of Society, our report about the social demands of protesters received the least attention from mainstream publications. For them, the main subject right now is the war, and they’re not interested in talking about the true reasons for the war or about alternatives to it. This may be paranoid, but that’s how it looks when you compare it to the fate of our other reports.

Open Left: Yatsenyuk has said that May will be the most difficult month in the history of Ukraine. What do you see in the near future?

Potarskaya: We’ve recently grown accustomed to things going their own way without us having any influence on what happens. It’s impossible to predict what will happen when there are so many forces at work. Each time you want to think that the worst has passed, that it can’t possibly get any worse—and then it does. What new provocation awaits us? No one knows. Still, there’s some hope that inflation and worsening conditions for workers will push the workers of large manufacturing concerns to come out and become an organizational force that can resist the growth of the chauvinistic and xenophobic ones. The workers of Krivhi Roh, who came out into the streets for the first time in twenty years, and the workers of the Kharkiv Ball-Bearing Plant have moved in this direction—these may well be the first canaries of a new wave of protests and general strikes, of the sort that never took place despite the calls for it throughout the winter from the so-called “leaders” of Maidan.

Ilya Budraitskis, Gleb Napreenko, and Nina Potarskaya worked on this article. Translated by the Russia desk.


Openleft: The events of the southeastern Ukrainian protests are clearly unprecedented in post-Soviet political history. Mass protest has never before been so intertwined with the actions of armed groups, and its internal causes—with its external ones. In light of the vehement propaganda issued by both the Ukrainian and Russian governments and the frantic tactics of those conducting the information warfare, we are, more than ever, desperate to deliver an honest analysis of the facts. At this moment, the primary objective of activists from the Russian and Ukrainian left should be to refrain from taking sides in this war.

Openleft.ru asked Ukrainian and Russian activists, analysts, and journalists to frame their arguments about the various political factors they see as central to the conflict in southeast Ukraine. They discuss the capacity for these movements to remain independent and the risk that they will be manipulated.

Elena Galkina, historian and activist, Moscow:

We can identify a number of differences between Maidan and the so-called Russian Spring in the southeast of the country, which should keep us from classifying the latter as a mass uprising. Here are just some of them:

Those participating in Maidan carried Ukrainian flags, opposing the corrupt regime of Yanukovich and his Russian supervisor, Putin. In turn, the participants of the Russian Spring movement, waving their St. George’s ribbons, joining together in a resounding chant (“Russia, Russia!”), are clearly promoting a list of demands originally issued by the President and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation.

Maidan was a place where dozens—no, hundreds of thousands—would congregate every weekend. By mid-February Maidan’s social make-up mirrored that of Ukraine writ large (the state’s officials and structures of coercion excepted). The government’s attempts to disperse the movement only increased its number. In southeast Ukraine, mass protests and rallies have been continuing nonstop for more than a month. The “insurgents” rarely gather more than a thousand people under their flags. Usually the number fluctuates between 200-300 people. True, their core members are well-armed and well-trained in combat, but, being from Russia, don’t know the neighborhood sufficiently well. Members of the local lumpenproletariat comprise the movement’s cannon fodder.

For the most part, activists from Maidan did not avoid the press, even at the most crucial and dangerous moments, as when a number of dictatorship laws were passed on January 17. The majority of the “Russian Spring” activists, or “Irridenta,” as the well-informed supporters of the “southeastern liberaration from Benderovtsy” put it, are masked or camouflaged. Maidan began peacefully, and, though some were forced to take up arms when faced with the government’s attempts at violent dispersal, the majority of protestors remained unarmed. You won’t see any professional military equipment in photos of hundreds of protestors prepared to fight.The same can’t be said for the “simple proletariat” rebelling in Donetsk and Lugansk. Some of them resemble the “little green men” who flooded Crimea before the anschluss (these, of course, turned out to be Russian cossacks, soldiers, and officers). Besides, the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) keeps issuing regular reports of Russian citizens arrested for infiltrating the country from the borderline Russian territories. Ukrainian and Russian bloggers have identified a number of the so-called “Putin’s toursits” on social networks.

Maidan’s tactics are best characterized by merciful and humane interactions with its adversaries: cases of “communists and veterans tortured by Benderovtsy,” as trumpeted by the Russian media, have never been confirmed. Meanwhile, members of the “Irridenta” have subjected civilians and hostages to torture and murder. The level of violence keeps rising, and their tactics resemble those of terrorists, particularly in their treatment of citizens who stand in support of Ukraine’s unification.

The thing about Donbass is that there are no mass protests whatsover. The region’s population is insufficiently or not at all involved, which makes it very easy for a fairly small, armed group of criminals and hoodlums to take control of the situation. That said, workers from Donbass, a highly industrial region, are surprised by the fact that members of the “Irridenta” haven’t yet made any social demands or called for a workers’ strike. The average level of income in Donbass is one of the highest in Ukraine, nearing that of Kyiv. Dnipropetrovsk, where income levels are relatively stable, is lower in this hierarchy, while the West of Ukraine is at the very bottom. Why is it that the territory that used to be home to the Revolutionary Insurrectionary Army of Ukraine, or Makhnovshchina, is not facing the same borderline terrorist riots that inundate the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, and, since the recent assassination attempt on Gennady Kernes, Kharkiv as well? (Makhnovia, or Free Territory, occupied a substantial part of what is known today as Western Ukraine. A territory well familiar with tumultuous events and uprisings, it was an attempt to form an anarchist society led my Nestor Makhno from 1918 to 1921 – n+1.) Why not take over the Security Service buildings in Kherson and Nikolaev, where Russian is as commonly used as in the larger districts of the Donbass region? In each of the eight regions comprising the country’s Southeast, attempts have been made to aggravate the situation. Clearly, all of this tumult and instability can do much harm to the reputation of the new government, which is already facing the risk of failed elections. It’s also clear that Donetsk and Luhansk are under influence of a local element, and it’s precisely this element that keeps the police and security services in the background. This element has a first name, a last name, a patronym, and the top slot on the Forbes list of Ukraine.1 It seems that the real social upheaval is yet to come to Ukraine, but its tide will be large-scale, because the system that governs the country is in deep crisis. Regardless, I’m certain that the future story of this protest will not include the agenda of the “Irridenta.”

Zahar Popovich, activist from the “Left Opposition”, Kyiv:

The current situation was triggered by the fact that Yanukovych’s criminal-oligarchic regime created social tensions and then canalized them into a conflict between East and West. The regime was able to produce this politics because of the extremely low level of trust in the country’s previous leaders (including the post-2004 regime of Viktor Yushchenko – n+1).

However, while the regime imposed by Yanukovych was criminal, it was also familiar; the new regime has offered more of the same, while lacking familiarity. And yet the People’s Republic of Donetsk based in Slavyansk currently bears much more resemblance to the “military junta” than the present government based in Kyiv. The idea for establishing the DNP, the People’s Republic of Donetsk, came from Russian nationalists who deployed troops from the Crimea to carry out armed attacks in the Ukrainian East. But this still leaves room for local criminal gangs, the lumpenproletariat, and members of the older generation nostalgic for the USSR.

The presence of the latter can be said to legitimize the Slavyansk junta: the fascist methods and the ideological support of Russian imperialism are justified because they oppose western imperialism. The fact that 300 DNP combatants came to the peaceful pro-Ukrainian demonstration in Donetsk and beat everyone up with metallic poles is crucial to our understanding. Unfortunately, compared to these well-organized groups, the working class hasn’t come up with an effective plan to take up the stage yet, although a recent strike in Krasnodon should give us an idea of what it’s capable of achieving. It is worth noting that representatives of pro-Maidan unions (KVPU – Confederation of Free Trade Unions of Ukraine) have a big say in the strike committees of the Krasnodon miners’ coalition.

Alexei Sakhnin, journalist, left activist, émigré

Essentially, the motives for the protests in southeast Ukraine are identical to those of the protests in Kyiv (and, to a large extent, of those in Moscow in 2011-2012). The post-Soviet governmental system is in a state of deep crisis; people have lost all faith in the authorities, in the social order, in all available public institutions.

The social composition of the southeastern uprising also resembles that of Kyiv. We are witnessing a large movement that includes all social sectors: from marginal social rejects to businessmen, from intellectuals to retirees (although in the East the lower-class element is more prevalent, since the more privileged social groups that congregate in Kyiv are thinner on the ground here). But the main difference between the participants of Maidan and the southeasterern anti-Maidan lies in the structure and organization of their protests. Maidan, despite its democratic rhetoric, was much more authoritarian. A coalition of three parties had control over the protest’s mise-en-scene. All attempts to bring in new banners led to severe reprisals.

The situation in the East is currently much freer and more chaotic, because no one group is in charge. It’s a real collage with all sorts of ideas on one canvas: Russian nationalists stand with the radical left, moderate supporters of federalization with criminal gangs lacking any ideological purpose. But whereas Maidan received enormous support and help from the press and even parts of the government [i.e. the parliamentary opposition – n+1], the anti-Maidan movement in the East is taking a stand against all those in power, globally. At the pinnacle of Maidan, each citizen of Kyiv received an invitation in the mail, and the TV channels incessantly called for action and mobilization in unison — but no information penetrates the vacuum in which Kharkiv, Donetsk, and Odessa currently reside. And if Kyiv’s city administration – as well as some western governors – openly took the side of the protesters at Maidan, eastern Ukraine is becoming an open conflict between the protesters and the local elite.

As for Russian influence, it’s not as simple as most observers seem to think. In Kharkiv the “pro-Russian” organizations don’t have a unified headquarters. That doesn’t seem to indicate intense external influence. Nor are the miners’ strikes in Kramatorsk and other cities in Donbass the work of the Russian secret services—trust me. Nearly all the proof of the “Russian hand” promised by the government in Kyiv turned out to be false. Among the hundreds of people arrested, not one has turned out to have a Russian passport—not to mention ID cards from the GRU [the Russian foreign intelligence service]. They’re all locals.

On the other hand, there are quasi-criminal paramilitary groups, various Cossacks, and former Berkut forces operating in Donbass, real battles are being fought, and there are likely emissaries there from Moscow. Overall, the Muscovites don’t seem to be playing a vital role there. It appears the Kremlin planted them there to help it pick a side to play for, while the fighting groups from going too far.

In conclusion, I would suggest that it’s precisely the less organized, less prepared, and less orchestrated nature of the movement in the Southeast that enables it to be more independent from the establishment. It is therefore the Southeast that has more liberatory potential, that it is more likely than Maidan to make demands uninfluenced and un-manipulated by the elites (and foreign powers). At the same time, the logic of national, linguistic, and cultural resistance is pushing the movement in the direction of nationalist-patriotic mobilization. This is exactly the political formula that’s been promoted by the Eastern elites for the past twenty years. The task of the left is to resist this logic at all costs.

Ilya Budraytskis, Historian, researcher, publicist, Moscow

There is a certain kind of symmetry and familiarity to what the events of the southeastern protests in Ukraine have so far offered in response to Maidan. Like Maidan, it is a mass movement oriented toward replacing those in power while strategically occupying governmental buildings. In other words, as with Maidan, the underlying objective of this movement is one of political revolution.

And yet, after weeks and weeks of political crisis featuring elements of civil war, it’s still unclear which party is, in fact, issuing this “symmetrical response.”

Mass grass-roots participation was decisive to the movement in Kyiv, even though those events also provided a platform for the converging interests of the oligarchy. Looking at the movement in the Southeast, it becomes clear that the interests of the people working “from below” have been subordinated from the start. Yes, thousands of people demanding a referendum and appealing for federalization have come out on the streets, and continue to do so. And yes, the majority of the population in these regions supports those demands and shares the enthusiasm of the protesters. What’s more, it is precisely this strong support that has led to the failure Kyiv’s so-called “antiterrorist operation.”

At the same time, it’s impossible to overlook the fact that the movement’s future would be extremely hazy and unstable were it not for specially trained and armed military groups that have demonstrated co-ordination and expertise in capturing and occupying administrative buildings and police departments in a number of cities in the Donetsk region.

The key to this movement is therefore the militarized advance-guard, while the political leadership in Donetsk and the surrounding republics remains undefined, weak, and unstructured, if not simply nonexistent. The movement lacks a political strategy (as evidenced by the fluctuating nature of its demands – first federalization and a referendum, then independence and annexation to the Russian Federation – and then back again). What is has instead is a military strategy. The paramilitaries have remained one step ahead of Kyiv’s armed forces; they possess good knowledge of the area and carefully follow their commanders’ orders.

The political weakness of the movement is a direct result of the region’s lack of knowledge of the culture of protest. The opposition movement here has little experience in self-organization and lacks strong opposition groups that would know how to act outside the realm of parliamentary politics. (This again distinguishes it from Maidan.) A glance at the movement’s eclectic, not to say random, leaders is telling: third-rate provincial political consultants, activists with a background in marginalized and isolated pro-Russian nationalist groups, ex-employees of various con artists, and petty criminals. Not one journalist or parliamentarian, and, what is more telling still, not a single working class leader. This is why the current movement is so much more vulnerable and susceptible to manipulation than was Maidan.

You don’t need to be a conspiracy theorist to see that someone is behind all this, someone with a strong hand that keeps shaking things up in the Southeast. The movement is aided not only by the armed so-called “insurgents,” but also by a police force that does nothing to prevent their occupation of government buildings. The “paralysis” of the authorities in Donetsk and Lugansk may not signify fear of the uprising, but, instead, a split in the higher sectors of the Ukrainian elite. Such a split certainly has precedents – as far back as the “Orange Revolution” of 2004, not to mention the mayors in the West of the country who openly took the side of Maidan during the winter. But what’s distinctive here is precisely the fact that in each of these precedents a political subject was visible on whose behalf these elites claimed to speak. The case of the current situation in southeast Ukraine leaves us clueless about who is giving support – as well as orders. The Kremlin, you might say — but that is not necessarily obvious, nor, for that matter, true.

The worst-case scenario right now is that the Eastern oligarchs, led by or in collusion with Akhmetov or the Yanukovych “family,” or both, will succeed in fomenting civil conflict to the point where the Kremlin feels like it must send in troops. And this is something that the Kremlin clearly does not want to do.

  1. The author is referring to the oligarch Rinat Leonidovich Akhmetov, the richest man in Ukraine, whose power base is in Donetsk and who is suspected to be supporting at least some of the separatist activity.  

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