Debaltseve is a key rail hub. Its capture not only links the main separatist-held cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, but connects the industrial and mining areas in eastern Ukraine to Russia, easing trade and supply lines.
The battle for the town unfolded as a Feb. 15 deadline came and went for a cease-fire, agreed to Feb. 12 in talks involving Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, Russian President Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande in Minsk, Belarus.
Poroshenko said he had proposed an immediate halt to the fighting, but Putin insisted on the three-day delay, which the pro-Moscow forces used to concentrate their assault. On Feb. 17 Putin called on Kiev to give up Debaltseve, saying, “Of course it’s a hardship when you lose to yesterday’s miners or yesterday’s tractor drivers. But life is life. It’ll surely go on.”
But despite his contemptuous denials, it is Moscow’s shipments of troops, tanks and artillery, not miners and truckers, that have shifted the relationship of forces.
Six months ago, squabbling separatist forces controlled relatively small, disconnected areas in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, and stood on the verge of defeat by pro-Ukraine fighters. Since then pro-Moscow units have seized some 200 square miles of new territory from the Ukrainian army and volunteer brigades.
As the defense of Debaltseve crumbled, Semen Semenchenko, a member of Ukraine’s parliament and commander of the volunteer Donbass Battalion, said the military was so poorly led there should be criminal charges against the head of the general staff. “There were enough forces and equipment,” Semenchenko wrote. “The problem is coordination and command.”
The separatist actions began in response to the sustained mass popular mobilizations that toppled the pro-Moscow government of Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014. The overwhelming majority of working people throughout the country celebrated his departure, at the same time not trusting the capitalist politicians who replaced him, including billionaire candy factory owner Poroshenko, seeing them as the same corrupt, profit-driven crew that runs the government as a tool to further their own class interests.
The actions of the Ukrainian government in response to the separatist provocations have weakened the fight for working-class unity and defense of Ukrainian sovereignty. Kiev has alienated some workers by callously treating civilians who remain in separatist-held territories as enemies, including cutting off their pension funds. In combat dominated by inaccurate artillery fire, both sides frequently shell working-class areas.
“How can I be for a united Ukraine when Kiev has spent the last six months bombing us?” a worker named Svetlana in the city of Donetsk told the Financial Times. She said she opposed the separatists’ attempt at a secessionist referendum in May, but has had to live in an underground bomb shelter in the months since.
IMF, bosses squeeze workers
The International Monetary Fund, which represents the interests of U.S. and European finance capital, announced Feb. 12 it is preparing a new “aid package” of $17.5 billion in loans to Kiev over the next four years. IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde praised Ukrainian officials for cutting social spending and raising gas and heating prices, but said more cuts must be made in exchange for additional loans.
These measures target working people, who are already hit by soaring inflation and a devastating slowdown in production. The official unemployment rate in Ukraine is 9.9 percent and rising. The Merefa Glass factory near Kharkiv recently suspended production, laying off more than 2,000 workers. The plant’s main furnace is broken and the enterprise can no longer get raw materials from a supplier in Russian-occupied Crimea because of sanctions.
The conditions for the IMF bailout include cutting subsidies to coal mines and other state enterprises. “Many will lose their jobs and salaries, but we don’t have any other way,” said Social Policy Minister Pavlo Rozenko, speaking for a “we” that clearly doesn’t include miners and their families.
At the Lviv Coal Processing Plant, workers are still owed a large portion of their wages since July, Olga Shkoropad, president of the Independent Trade Union of Miners of Ukraine (NPGU) local at the plant, told the Militant Feb. 15. The plant also has an outstanding energy bill, and will be shut if the debt is not paid by Feb. 18, she said. Workers from the Lviv plant joined national protests in Kiev in January, demanding back pay and opposing mine closures.
Fearing working class opposition, the pro-Moscow justice minister in the so-called People’s Republic of Luhansk issued an order Jan. 20 barring all “registration of independent trade unions,” denying recognition to the NGPU.
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