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Vol. 80/No. 32      August 29, 2016

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Russian gov’t ratchets up conflict with Kiev in Crimea

Russian officials accused the Ukrainian government Aug. 10 of organizing armed incursions into Crimea — the Black Sea peninsula militarily occupied and annexed by Moscow in 2014 in a brazen violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty. Moscow’s Federal Security Service said one of its agents and a Russian soldier were killed fending off “saboteurs” in two separate incidents, and claims to have detained several members of Ukraine’s special forces.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called these allegations “preposterous.” Relatives of truck driver Yevhen Panov, one of those arrested by Russian authorities, said he had been kidnapped and was not a member of the Ukrainian armed forces. These events take place amid a growing Russian military buildup in Crimea. At the same time, fighting between Kiev’s forces and Russian-backed separatists who have seized sections of Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region has increased to a level not seen in nearly a year.

Kiev put its troops near Crimea on combat alert, at the same time appealing for support to the rulers of Germany, France and the U.S., as well as imperialist-led bodies such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

The escalation of the conflict in Ukraine comes as Washington is seeking an agreement with Moscow for military collaboration in Syria. To achieve this, the U.S. rulers are willing to grant Moscow a measure of latitude to protect its interests in what Russia’s capitalist rulers consider their “near abroad.”

While giving lip service to Ukrainian sovereignty and maintaining economic sanctions against Russia and Crimea that hit hard on workers’ lives and working conditions, Washington has pressed the Ukrainian government to reach an accommodation with Moscow. At a press briefing Aug. 11, State Department spokesperson Elizabeth Trudeau stressed that while “Crimea is part of Ukraine and is recognized as such by the international community,” Washington is calling for both Moscow and Kiev to “reduce the tensions, reduce the rhetoric and get back to talks.”

Citing the alleged sabotage in Crimea, Russian President Vladimir Putin said it would be “pointless” to proceed with talks involving officials from France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine that were planned for September alongside the G20 summit meeting in China. The Russian business newspaper Vedomosti speculated that Putin is looking to either tear up or alter the conditions of the Minsk agreement — the crumbling cease-fire in the separatist war in eastern Ukraine that was brokered by the German and French governments last year.

Working people in Russia face a deepening economic crisis. The Russian economy has been in recession for the last year and a half, and real wages fell by 9.5 percent last year. There have been workers’ protests against lack of pay and cuts in social services. Military moves and efforts to whip up nationalist patriotic sentiment, many commentators say, can help shore up Putin’s United Russia Party leading into next month’s parliamentary elections.

Moscow’s seizure and annexation of Crimea, which was already home to a major Russian naval base, took place in the wake of the mass protests known as the Maidan that forced out the pro-Moscow government of Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014.

Over the following months, the Russian government sent weapons and fighters to back separatists who set up the self-proclaimed “People’s Republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk in the industrial region along Ukraine’s eastern border with Russia. Nearly 10,000 combatants and civilians have been killed on both sides in this war.

While Moscow’s intervention is a threat to workers in Ukraine today, the biggest dangers they face are from the country’s capitalist rulers. The government headed by Poroshenko, a billionaire factory owner, has used the conflict as a justification for clamping down on political space for working people. A recent report issued by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, titled “You Don’t Exist,” documents “arbitrary detentions, enforced disappearances, and torture in eastern Ukraine” by both sides.

One case described in the report is the detention of Kostyantyn Beskorovaynyi, a member of the Communist Party of Ukraine who was a dentist and an elected member of the town council in Kostyantynivka. He described being held incommunicado under brutal conditions for 15 months, while authorities denied he was in their custody. The report describes similar abusive detentions committed by separatist forces in Donetsk and Luhansk against those accused of supporting Ukrainian sovereignty.

Poroshenko has tried to smear workers who protest deteriorating conditions and unpaid wages as a “fifth column” backing Moscow. This hasn’t stopped workers from looking for ways to fight. Members of the Independent Trade Union of Miners struck the Krasnoarmiiskvuhillia Stahanova mine, located in the government-controlled area of the Donetsk region, on Aug. 11. They are demanding three months back wages.
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