Julie Ward reports from Kyiv on the Social Movement and efforts to organise popular resistance to the Russian aggression
Waking up on Thursday morning, 24th February, to the news that multiple cities and targets across Ukraine had been the target of unprovoked Russian attacks was everyone’s worst nightmare. However, Putin’s full scale military offensive against Ukraine was not unexpected. The build up of Russian troops on Ukraine’s borders with Russia and Belarus has been going on for weeks, whilst in the south more and more Russian warships had been joining manoeuvres in the Azov and Black Sea over the last few months.
Putin’s supposedly live announcement, broadcast to the world in the dark hours of 23rd-24th February 23/24, was most likely pre-recorded at the same time as he announced Russia’s constitutional recognition of the breakaway areas of Luhansk and Donetsk, on 21st February. I was in the Centre for Civil Liberties in Kyiv when the news broke, where I was listening to the heart-rending testimonies of the families of Crimean Tatars who have been imprisoned by the Kremlin.
The full scale war may have just started this week, but Russian military aggression against Ukraine has been going on since the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, closely followed by Putin’s arming of rebels in the eastern region of Donbas. He has been ramping it up ever since. The region has seen more than 14,000 deaths as a result of the conflict, but few in the mainstream media had been taking much notice. Prolonged conflicts make headlines for a few days and are then relegated to the inside pages before disappearing from the news completely.
In the UK we were too busy with our own domestic problems including Brexit, which was not entirely unrelated to Putin’s game plan which includes sowing chaos, confusion, discord and division, outwitting Western democracies with troll factories engaged in highly effective cyber warfare and disinformation campaigns. We are not immune – even the chair of the North East Ambulance Service stated at a meeting on 24th February that there was “clear and present danger” to NHS functions posed by cyber security threats originating in Russia.
I flew to Kyiv on 19th February as part of a progressive left delegation led by Labour and Co-operative Welsh Senedd minister Mick Antoniw. Also in the delegation were fellow Senedd member and leader of Plaid Cymru, Adam Price; ASLEF general secretary Mick Whelan; NUM president Chris Kitchen; Yuliya Yurchenko, a lecturer in political economy at the University of Greenwich; and the journalist Paul Mason. Antoniw’s father was a Ukrainian refugee. His cousins are now variously engaged in defending their homeland.
My relationship with Ukraine dates from 2011, when I participated in a year-long pan-European cultural management exchange project initiated by the philanthropic European Cultural Foundation based in Amsterdam. I was twinned with a jazz festival in the city of Lutsk near the Polish border, one of the many cities targeted in Putin’s initial pre-dawn offensive. During my time as a Labour MEP I supported various EU initiatives regarding Ukraine’s efforts to strengthen its civil society and democratic structures. In 2018 I was invited to open a hospital in Ivankiv, a city close to Chernobyl where victims of the nuclear disaster (including second and third generations) can receive health care as part of ongoing EU-funded programmes in the stricken region. This package also included a replacement shield for the damaged reactor. Russian troops who invaded Ukraine from Belarus had Chernobyl firmly in their sights from the outset, provoking high anxiety at international level. Now the complex is in Russian hands we may yet see the international community held to ransom.
During my four days in Ukraine I stayed with my friends Daria and Murat and their two-year-old child Platon (Plato). Murat is a highly qualified nuclear engineer who works at a national scientific institute. On Tuesday he was sitting his annual professional examinations into the impact of seismological movements on nuclear infrastructure. Plato was supposed to be at kindergarten but he was running a temperature so Daria kept him at home and he ran around their flat playing hide and seek instead. A bundle of essential items lay by the front door and Murat’s car had a full tank of petrol. The next-door neighbour had repeatedly refused the offer of a free flight to Spain from his tech employer. When I last had contact they were all in Murat’s car, along with Platon’s grandmother, driving towards the border with Poland and Slovakia, posting social media appeals for the world to show international solidarity with their meagre armed forces.
Tens of thousands of Ukrainians are fleeing the major cities, taking refuge with friends and relatives in the countryside or crossing borders into safe countries. Moldova is one of the poorest countries in Europe, but compassion, friendship and solidarity has no price tag in much of the post-Soviet world. The Moldovan president, Maia Sandhu, was quick to announce that her country would welcome Ukrainians in need of sanctuary, and thousands are expected to arrive.
Our delegation met with trade unionists, civil society activists, human rights defenders, reservist forces, politicians, ministers and state intelligence agents who gave us detailed numbers of Russian military deployments poised and ready to attack. The sheer numbers of personnel, aircraft, battleships, and field hospitals were eye-watering and the up-to-date map that we were shown clearly demonstrated the largest militarisation in Europe since World War II.
Despite his military background and deep patriotism, a senior minister emphasised the need for Ukrainian allies to support a peaceful solution with dialogue and strong sanctions first and foremost. He reminded us that the West has effectively been paying for Russia to invest in its military capability through our embracing of oligarchs close to Putin along with European reliance on Russian energy supplies. Germany’s reluctance to give up the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline has been an ongoing political football throughout much of my political career but, in an announcement that followed Putin’s welcoming of Ukraine’s breakaway regions into the Russian Federation, the German Chancellor, Olaf Schloz, finally froze the agreement.
At several meetings with dozens of trade union leaders and activists from the Ukrainian leftist party Social Movement (Sotsialniy Rukh), we heard plenty of criticism of the pivot towards neoliberalism by the political class in Kyiv. We met inspiring lawyers, students, intellectuals, journalists, transport workers, queer activists, and a nurse called Nina who had stood up to the government and campaigned for better employment rights for health workers. The deputy leader of one of the mining unions, a Russian-speaking woman from the contested region of Donbas, countered the false and oft-repeated narrative that Russians in her home town wanted to join the Russian Federation and were subject to genocide, talking of her experiences growing up in a harmonious multi-ethnic community where neighbour helped neighbour.
Putin has mastered the art of misinformation, as we well know from well-documented Russian meddling in our democratic processes and through his state-funded broadcaster RT. The Conservative government conveniently buried the so-called ‘Russia Report’ which uncovered clear evidence of Kremlin-backed interference in the 2016 referendum, and opened up criticism of links between Leave campaigners, the Tory Party and Russian donors. No wonder Johnson’s response to Ukraine’s desperate call for strong sanctions was initially so mealy-mouthed and inadequate. It isn’t a good look when the Twittersphere is flooded with photos of Liz Truss and co enjoying the company of billionaires married to Putin’s top advisers.
Meanwhile, Social Movement reported on our meeting, which was full of hope even as the Russian army continued its build up on the borders. But in less than 24 hours they released a powerful unequivocal statement condemning Putin’s breaking of international agreements as “a crime of imperialism against peace”, calling for a wholesale abandonment of oligarchic capitalism and for global solidarity with social movements in Russia and elsewhere, whilst urging Ukrainians to join the civil defence force.
Our final meeting in Kyiv late on Tuesday afternoon was with city mayor Vitali Klitschko, who was famously a world champion boxer in his younger days. It was clear that Klitschko’s steady hand had been largely responsible for the calm atmosphere in Kyiv when we arrived in the city. Despite the increasing international hysteria, and media pundits trying to game Putin’s likely strategy, Klitschko had encouraged citizens and the few tourists who remained to continue with their daily lives. However, behind the scenes he had been helping to prepare for a vicious Russian onslaught, which came (as our intelligence had predicted) in the night less than 48 hours afterwards.
Klitschko is half-Russian. Born in what was is now Kyrgyzstan, he also spent time in Germany and is a passionate European just like the majority of his compatriots (especially young Ukrainians). Like many, he has been preparing to defend his country by taking up arms. This gentle giant told us there were no bread queues in Ukraine but that the demand for firearms had outstripped supply in every town, village and city. Like many, he had also signed up as a reservist. In another meeting we met command and control for the Kyiv civil defence forces, who have been training volunteers every weekend for months. Around 23% of Ukrainian regular armed forces are women, and this enthusiasm to serve one’s country has also permeated the civilian consciousness. Reservists come from all walks of life, with veterans from previous conflicts and former UN peacekeepers training alongside fresh-faced students, manual workers and professional classes. Even members of parliament have signed up to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our trade union friends.
The coming hours and days will be a test of this mettle as the Kremlin’s ‘pincer’ movement, almost encircling the country and attacking from three directions, demonstrates that the capital Kyiv is the prize that Putin has set his sights on, most likely decapitating the democratically elected government and installing a puppet administration.