The Self-determination Struggle in Russian Crimea and the Pro-autonomy Struggle in Donbas (formerly eastern Ukraine)

Potential hotspots between Russia and Ukraine, 2021. Panther Media GmbH / Alamy Stock Vector

Dissident Voice has published an article by U.S. writer William Boardman on December 14 titled ‘Ukraine is a problem only as long as the West makes it one’. The article is reprinted from Reader Supported News and warns of the dangerous consequences emanating from the military threats by the Western powers against Russia. The U.S. and Russia are the world’s two leading nuclear powers, Boardman reminds. He asks rhetorically in his article, “What could possibly go wrong?”

The danger is even more acute, Boardman warns, because of “the U.S.-led nuclear arms race”. Recall that the imperialist nuclear powers have refused to heed the call to abolish their nuclear weapons or even to swear off a ‘first strike’ policy.

Western governments and media are currently spouting a tidal wave of lies and misinformation about the situation in eastern Ukraine, warning of an imminent ‘Russian invasion’ of the country. They are doing more than talking; they are also boosting their supplying of arms and provision of military training to the Ukrainian armed forces and its associated, extreme-right paramilitary battalions.

As a result, it is more important than ever for antiwar activists and alternative media to provide reliable and factual information that can counter the government and media barrage emanating from Western capitals. This article aims to further explain the important points made by the article in Dissident Voice and add some clarifications of the recent history of Ukraine.

The Minsk-2 peace agreement remains foundational

Boardman’s article states an essential truth for understanding the anti-Russia propaganda barrage: “The essence of a solution for Ukraine issues has already been outlined in the so-called ‘Minsk II’ agreement of 2015, reached by leaders of France, Germany, Russia, and Ukraine.”

The nine-point, Minsk II agreement reached in February 2015, and unanimously endorsed several days later by the UN Security Council, contains the essential provisions for ending the NATO-encouraged, low-intensity war by the Ukrainian government and its armed forces against the autonomous republics of Donetsk and Lugansk. It proposes measures of political autonomy for the two autonomous republics as well as other measures to normalize the situation along a Ukraine-Russia border. But as Boardman writes, “Despite their formal assent to Minsk II, three U.S. administrations [since 2015] have supported Ukraine in refusing to implement the agreement. Nor have they proposed any better idea. This is an example of foreign policy guided by denial of reality.”

The measures in Minsk-2 are essential for a settlement of the conflict in Donbas, the historic, heavily industrialized region lying between Ukraine and Russia. The region comprises the former Ukrainian provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk. The population is majority Russian speaking but includes a significant minority of residents who consider themselves Ukrainian.

The importance of keeping Minsk II in the picture is underlined by three recent commentaries on NATO’s anti-Russia aggression, which are all very informative but which neglect to mention Minsk II. They are: Russell Bentley in Covert Action Magazine on Nov 12; Katrina vanden Heuvel in The Nation on December 8 and Nicolai Petro (U. of Rhode Island) in The Nation on December 10.

Restating some facts about Donbas and Russian Crimea

Boardman writes near the outset of his essay, “Eastern Ukraine, the Donbas, has been a war zone since March 2014 when separatist Ukrainian forces in Donetsk and Luhansk started fighting for independence from the central government in Kiev. This is a civil war between the self-declared People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk against the Ukraine government.” There are inaccuracies here that merit clarification.

The people of Donbas and their self-defense forces are not ‘separatists’. They never were. Their struggle began as a resistance struggle against the new, right-wing government in Kyiv that emerged from the violent, extreme-right coup there in February 2014. Their struggle quickly transformed into military resistance against extreme-right and neo-Nazi paramilitaries from Ukraine who commenced violent incursions into Donbas in late April 2014. The Donbas resistance and struggle quickly became a fight for political autonomy, and this was codified in the Minsk II agreement (text here).

Only a properly conducted referendum in Donbas could determine whether a majority there today would support outright secession from Ukraine and joining the Russia Federation, as occurred in Crimea in March 2014. With all the violence and killings that Donbas has suffered at the hands of Ukrainian forces, it would hardly be surprising if secession were to win a majority in a referendum vote. But that remains speculation. Disappointingly for many in Donbas, Russia is in a poor position to defy the NATO countries and support the holding of a referendum in Donbas. For NATO, a referendum is the last thing it would wish to see.

The armed resistance to Kyiv and its extreme-right paramilitary battalions began in late April 2014, not in March as Boardman writes. This was two months after the coup in Ukraine and more than a month after the March 16 referendum in Crimea. A majority of Crimea’s population voted to secede from Ukraine and join the Russian Federation. The reasons for the nearly two-month delay between mass, anti-coup resistance in Crimea and that which erupted in Donbas tell us a great deal about the modern history of Ukraine.

The self-determination struggle in Crimea

Crimea was an autonomous republic of Ukraine, the only part of Ukraine with such a status. Its constitutional powers resembled something similar to those of U.S. states or Canadian provinces. Otherwise, Ukraine is a highly centralized state with all power sitting in Kyiv. Indeed, Ukrainian was the only official language in Ukraine. One of the first acts of the new Crimean government following the 2014 referendum was to legislate three official languages—Russian, Ukrainian and Tatar.

The struggle for Crimean autonomy dates back, through various iterations, to the self-determination policies of the Russian Revolution of 1917. The Crimean Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic was founded in 1921. It became a constituent of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (Soviet Union) upon the founding of the USSR in 1922. Crimea’s political status was obliterated by the catastrophic invasion by Nazi Germany in 1941. It was the scene of some of the bloodiest battles of World War Two; the Nazi occupation was finally defeated in 1944.

In 1954, Crimea was attached to Soviet Ukraine by a decision of the central government of the Soviet Union. This was done without the slightest consultation with the population and it never sat well with the population and its elected leaders. Some autonomous status was retained, but very limited. Many Crimeans consider that they didn’t ‘join’ but ‘rejoin’ Russia in 2014 since they had no say in the original decision by the Soviet Union in 1954 to remove the peninsula from the Soviet Russian republic and attach it to Soviet Ukraine.

The survival of Crimean autonomy was such that the people there had an elected and constitutional governing authority to turn to when their world turned upside down with the February 2014 coup in Kyiv. When the new leaders in Kyiv, including from neo-Nazi paramilitaries, began to threaten Crimea with military intervention if it did not acquiesce to the coup, the leaders of the republic did not shrink from their duty to protect the population. They called on Russia to protect them from a looming bloodbath, and they proceeded with a referendum vote in less than a month following the coup. The vote passed by a sizable majority.

No such autonomous political power, bequeathed by history, existed in Donbas in 2014. The people there had to build representative political institutions more or less from scratch. Thanks to heroic efforts by self-defense fighters, the Ukrainian assaults in 2014/early 2015 were slowed and eventually pushed back. But the assault never ended, despite Minsk II. Ukrainian forces have maintained their occupation of the western areas of Donetsk and Lugansk and have waged deadly and continual sniper shootings and artillery shelling of autonomous areas.

Why were the people of Donbas so vulnerable at the outset? The answer to that question is beyond the scope of this article, but should be of great interest to anyone interested in the history of Russia and the Soviet Union. Due largely to the intense military intervention and economic blockade by the Western powers against the early Soviet Union, the new country evolved over time into a form of authoritarian socialism. Its early, exemplary policies of self-determination and autonomy for national minorities were eroded and reversed during the rule of Joseph Stalin. The Crimean Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (ASSR) was abolished in 1945.

The people of Crimea chastened under Soviet Ukrainian rule, which began in 1954. It was one of the poorest regions of Ukraine but the population had few political means to change their status. That all changed with the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of the 1980s. Crimeans resisted the dismantlement of the Soviet Union, which set in motion a regression back to capitalism. The dismantlement prompted a resurgence of self-determination struggle. Crimeans voted in a January 1991 referendum to restore the ASSR. Several months later, they voted strongly in favour of a Soviet Union-wide referendum to retain the Soviet Union (albeit with important reforms to its political structure). Included in that mix during the 1990s were strong demands in Crimea for affiliation to Russia or outright independence.

Russia and Crimea

Russia did not “take advantage” of the chaotic, post-coup situation in 2014 and “walk into Crimea unopposed and annex it,” as Boardman writes. The referendum vote of March 16, 2014 was organized by an elected and constitutional authority, the Autonomous Republic of Crimea. A strong majority of Crimeans voted in favour of joining the Russian Federation. The legitimacy of it all—legally and morally–is confirmed not only by events at the time but also by subsequent opinion polling of the population. In the months and years following, polling has consistently shown strong support, higher, even, than the original vote, for the 2014 decision, including among the minority populations of Crimean Tatars and Ukrainians. (One of those polls, by a German firm in 2015, was partly financed by the Canadian government.)

It is true that Russia dispatched police and soldiers to aid the Crimean government with its referendum and to provide safety and protection from the rightist paramilitaries in Ukraine threatening to invade. But they did not ‘walk into’ the peninsula. Russia had approximately 20,000 soldiers already stationed in and around its naval base at the Crimean port city of Sevastopol, under the terms of a treaty between Ukraine and Russia negotiated amidst the breakup of the Soviet Union.

As I wrote in in 2017:

With violent intervention against Crimea imminently threatened, yes, Russia moved quickly and decisively to facilitate the Crimea referendum. This was not an ‘annexation’. It was an emergency situation in which the people and elected representatives of Crimea were demanding protection from the threats by the neo-Nazis in Ukraine and also demanding a referendum on their future political/economic status. They would not take ‘no’ for an answer from the Russian government on a referendum. As well, there was strong pressure on the Russian government from its own population to defend the Crimean people and facilitate a referendum. The agreement between the European Union and Russia on February 19 (2014) to advance the date for the next presidential election in Ukraine, scheduled for 2015, was quickly sabotaged. Given who was now in power in Kyiv as a result of the coup, Russia had no reason whatsoever to believe that a compromise was possible allowing for a safe and meaningful future for Crimea in Ukraine. (United Nations ‘human rights’ ideologues issue report condemning Crimea, Sep 25, 2017.)

Never mentioned in corporate and state media reports in the West are the outrageous measures by Ukraine immediately following the referendum. Most of Crimea’s water and electricity supply came from Ukraine along the narrow isthmus connecting the two territories. This was severed by Ukraine. Likewise for all road, rail and aircraft connections. These were serious human rights violations but the Western ‘democracies’ looked aside and censoring Western media has gone along for the ride.

(For an overview of Crimean history, see the excellent The Crimea Question Identity, Transition, and Conflict, by Gwendolyn Sasse, Harvard U. Press, 2005, paperback edition in 2014, 384 p.)

Impoverishment in Ukraine under the EU economic association agreement

Boardman writes, “In 2013, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych put NATO and European Union membership in play, then reversed course under Russian pressure.” Yes, but the Russian ‘pressure’ was coming in the form of a better economic agreement, compared to what was on offer from the European Union. The proof of the poverty of the EU association agreement is in the results nearly eight years later. During that time, Ukraine has suffered a serious degrading of its political sovereignty at the hands of the EU and NATO as well as a further, desperate impoverishment of the Ukrainian people.

The most recent measure of Ukraine’s impoverishment is the blow delivered by the coronavirus pandemic. The country has a high rate of Covid-19 infections and the lowest rate of vaccination in Europe. This is but one of many measures of poverty.

A report by UNICEF in April 2021 details the poverty of families with children in Ukraine. It reports that the rates of ‘absolute poverty’ of families with children in Ukraine in 2019 was 47.3 per cent. For families without children, the rate was 34.3 per cent. The threshold of ‘absolute poverty’ is defined in the report as the minimum requirements necessary to provide for minimum standards of food, cloths, healthcare, and shelter. (See the two charts enclosed immediately below.)

Absolute poverty rate in Ukraine, by type of households with children (UNICEF, 2021)

Child absolute poverty rate in Ukraine (UNICEF, 2021)

Another measure of impoverishment is the high number of Ukrainians seeking to emigrate to central and western Europe for work. Indeed, a compelling reason why many Ukrainians supported the 2013 economic association agreement with the European Union (and supported the coup the EU helped to incite) was that it offered a path to leave the country and work in higher income countries in Europe.

Exact figures on economic migrants from Ukraine vary. According to Ukraine’s Ministry of Social Policy, 3.2 million Ukrainians work permanently outside the country. (All figures here do not include the populations of Donbas and Crimea.) Between 2014 and 2019, 3,446,793 Ukrainians received first-time residence permits in the EU. Poland remains the top destination for Ukrainian labour migrants to the EU. During the period 2014-2019, Ukraine received US$67.914 billion in remittances, with this source of income accounting, on average, for 9.5% of annual GDP, exceeding ten per cent for the three years 2016-2018. (source: Report by Prague Process, Mar 15, 2021)

Politico put the number of economic migrants at four million in a report on May 31, 2020. That report also said, “According to the World Bank, 2019 remittances were the highest in Europe at nearly $16 billion–ten percent of Ukrainian GDP.” Open Democracy said in a June 2020 article there are five million Ukrainians working abroad.

Then there are the privatizations of state-owned enterprises that are continuing. In a brief report published by the pro-NATO think-tank Atlantic Council in April 2021, Dmytro Sennychenko, head of the State Property Fund of Ukraine, explained that his government forecasts 2021 budget revenues from privatizations amounting to more than USD 430 million. Of that, USD 320 million will come from large-scale privatizations, meaning the industrial giants inherited from Soviet Ukraine. An additional USD 110 million will come from the sale of smaller, private enterprises. Sennychenko writes that the forecast is “entirely realistic” because the Ukrainian government oversaw similar amounts of privatizations in 2020.

Why the U.S. and NATO act as they do

Boardman opens his article with, “Since the fall of the Soviet Union thirty years ago, US policy on Ukraine has been an ugly mix of inconsistency, quiet aggression, fear-mongering and stupidity.” He writes in his conclusion, “Ukraine is a wholly American-made pseudo crisis in which the US national interest is close to zero.” He adds, “President Biden has the opportunity to re-direct US policy on Ukraine in a peaceful direction… But it will take serious, steadfast courage… And we don’t know if he has the strength to wage peace.” Many readers of these words will no doubt be unconvinced by the image of a bumbling U.S. and NATO.

The U.S. and its allies are waging a multi-front economic war with military threats against Russia and also against China, Venezuela, Cuba and others. The exact pretexts vary from one targeted country to the next. But the overall reasons are evident. The capitalist and imperialist system and the countries that police it worldwide are in decline. Their criminal negligence has brought the world to the brink of disaster due to global warming and now a coronavirus pandemic. Their economic order is highly unstable and will not tolerate rivals or even friendly competitors outside the tight club of imperialist countries (North America, Europe, Japan and Australasia) whose membership is largely unchanged since 1945. They have shown time and again that their ultimate option in dealing with rivals is violence—be it starvation by sanctions or bombing from the air.

The big capitalists are driven to act violently by the all-powerful economic laws of growth and expansion of their system. These same laws are driving the global warming emergency.

This is the scourge which the world must join together to challenge and overcome. Those who foment militarism and environmental destruction must be unseated and replaced by governments dedicated to building a new world based on social justice and environmental stewardship. The building of broad, anti-imperialist alliances to oppose militarism and economic blockades is a key step towards humanity’s survival and progress.


Recommended, related readings: ((“Russia’s ‘plan to invade Ukraine’ exists only in the U.S. and NATO imagination,” commentary by Scott Ritter, RT, Dec 5, 2021.

Who is fighting who in Ukraine?,” commentary by Glenn Diesen, published in RT, Dec 5, 2021 (Glenn Diesen is a professor at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, and an editor at the journal Russia in Global Affairs.)

Is Russia going to invade Ukraine?,” essay and commentary by Paul Robinson (U. of Ottawa), published in RT, Nov 24, 2021.))


Postscript, December 22, 2021:

The opening lines of the above article explained, ‘It is more important than ever for antiwar activists and alternative media to provide reliable and factual information [about the situation in eastern Ukraine and Crimea] that can counter the government and media barrage emanating from Western capitals.’ The relevance of this sentence is highlighted by a December 15 commentary by John Feffer, director of Foreign Policy In Focus, a publication project of the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington. His commentary is titled ‘War with Russia?’. It has been re-published in CounterPunch, on December 22.

Feffer’s commentary creates an appearance of objectivity by criticizing both the U.S. and Russian governments for the deterioration in relations and heightening of military tensions between them. But the weight of Feffer’s criticism falls most heavily on Russia, including the false accusation of a Russian ‘invasion’ and ‘annexation’ of Crimea in 2014 and the false claim that the self-defense forces of Donbas (the autonomous republics of Donetsk and Lugansk) are ‘seperatists’.

The overall picture created by Feffer’s commentary is that of an ‘aggressive’ Russia being cautioned and held to account by a careful U.S. government and its NATO alliance. Feffer writes not a word about the Minsk-2 ceasefire and peace agreement of February 2015. But that agreement remains foundational for any settlement of the continued aggression by Ukraine and NATO against Donetsk and Lugansk, as informative article by William Boardman published earlier in Dissident Voice put it. Minsk-2 was endorsed unanimously by no less than the UN Security Council, on Feb 17, 2015. John Feffer’s silence on that agreement is deafening and reveals deep biases against Russia. His commentary is a disservice to the cause of peace. Reader beware.
Roger Annis

Roger Annis publishes a website of news and analysis, A Socialist In Canada. In 2014, he travelled to Crimea to attend an international, antiwar conference. In 2015, he traveled with others on a reporting mission to Donbas. Read other articles by Roger.