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The Fascist Threat
by James Dunnigan
June 5, 2014

As of May 18, 2014, five weeks of Russian inspired separatist violence in eastern Ukraine has left over 130 dead so far and the fighting continues. Russian plans to annex eastern Ukraine (the Donbas region) are not working as they did in Crimea. In Donbas the locals as well as the Ukrainian government are fighting back. The Russian supported separatists are outnumbered and in danger of being crushed. Russia cannot really afford a defeat like this, but is faced with growing anger in Ukraine and around the world. Russia makes light of Western sanctions over the Ukraine meddling, but the economic damage to Russia is already being done and there is nothing Russia can do to halt that short of getting out of Ukraine. Thus for the last few days the Ukrainian government has been holding talks with the pro-Russian separatists but these do not appear to be going anywhere, apparently because Russia has not decided what to do next.

The crisis in Ukraine, which began earlier in the year when the corrupt leader of Ukraine was ousted by a popular uprising (for taking bribes from the Russians), led Russia to more desperate measures. Russia apparently thought this was necessary because for the last decade years Russia has been turning back into a dictatorship, complete with state control of the media and lots of propaganda about foreign enemies. This includes depicting Western Europe and the U.S. as conspiring to surround Russia and weaken it. Or something like that, it’s unclear in the West what the Russian objective here is other that stirring up traditional Russian fears of foreign invasion to distract Russians from the fact that they are gradually losing their democracy, and at great economic cost. The government is now calling everyone who disagrees with them a fascist and enemies of Russia. The fascist angle is useful against Ukraine as during World War II many Ukrainians cooperated with the Nazis in the hope of regaining independence. Russia never forgave the Ukrainians for openly proclaiming their preference for the German fascists over the Stalin led communists of the Soviet Union. To the Ukrainians the Nazis were the lesser of two evils and the Russians did not appreciate the comparison. Meanwhile, to many Russians and most Ukrainians the “new Russia” is the true fascist state, but you can get in trouble for saying that inside Russia.   

In eastern Ukraine the Russian plan to seize control of the Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts (province) is falling apart. Luhansk has half the population of Donetsk but together these two provinces contain about 13 percent of Ukraine’s population and the two provinces are about 38 percent ethnic Russian. The two provinces comprise the Donets Basin (or “Donbas”) which was for a long time an economic powerhouse for Russia. But that began to decline in the 1980s and accelerated when the Soviet Union fell (and Ukraine became independent) in 1991. The Donbas still comprises about 15 percent of Ukraine’s GDP and, outside of Kiev, is the most densely populated area of Ukraine. Luhansk has the longest border of with Russia of any Ukrainian province. In the Donbas many of the ethnic Russians believe that if Russia controlled the Donbas once more things would be better. That may be because Russia has natural gas and oil which Ukraine lacks. Most of these Russians originally moved to the Donbas because of the jobs and since the 1990s many younger ones have returned to Russia.

With Russian encouragement and assistance in early April some of these ethnic Russians formed separatist militias and have seized control of some parts of the Donbas and now call it the Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics. Most of the Donbas population does not want to become part of Russia again. This includes Rinat Akhmetov, a billionaire whose fortune is largely based on Donbas industries. Akhmetov employs 300,000 people in Donbas, which is nearly ten percent of the workforce. Coming out in opposition to the Russian aggression is dangerous because if the Russians do seize Donbas Akhmetov will lost most of his fortune. At the same time Akhmetov is demanding changes in the Ukrainian government for his support. This includes more autonomy for Donbas (and Akhmetov) and less corruption (and more efficient government). Akhmetov appears to have sensed which way the political winds are blowing and may have concluded that his fortune was in trouble even if he backed the Russian aggression. For many people in the region Russia is considered even more corrupt than Ukraine and the Akhmetov fortune is, to many in Russia, something to be seized and distributed to Russians. Akhmetov is Jewish and while there is still a lot of anti-Semitism in Ukraine it is far worse in Russia.

The separatists control about a third of the Donbas population mainly via their occupation of government buildings and many key road junctions in the major cities. While the armed pro-Russian separatists have been fighting back when they encounter Ukrainian troops they are less eager to open fire on local pro-Ukrainian militias. This is troubling news for Russia which now has to fear a guerilla war if it seizes Donbas. The old Soviet Union was brutal and will organized enough to deal with Ukrainian guerillas after World War II, although that fighting lasted into the 1950s. Post-Soviet Russia is much less able to deal with a popular rebellion against Russian rule. Russia also has growing economic problems resulting from the aggression in Ukraine. Huge amounts of Russian and foreign cash (several hundred billion dollars’ worth) has fled the country and most foreign investment plans are dead or on hold. According to the IMF (International Monetary Fund) believes the Russian economy is now in recession. This is not so much because of the sanctions, but because investors (Russian and foreign) see the Ukrainian adventure ending badly for Russia and until it is clear that the outcome is otherwise, are getting their money to a safer place.

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