By Dmitri Kovalevich [For Covert Action Magazine]
More Ukrainian Soldiers Continue to Defect as Eastern Ukrainians See Better Future with Russian Federation
For more than five months, full-scale hostilities have taken place on the territory of Ukraine. The number of victims is growing every day on both sides of the front line.
From the signing of the “Minsk 2” peace agreement in February 2015 until February 2022—seven long years—hostilities in the Donbas region raged with regular shelling and small arms attacks by the Ukrainian military and paramilitaries against the towns and cities of the region. Ukrainians throughout the country have become accustomed to this routinized, “low intensity” warfare.
However, the entry of the Russian Federation into the conflict on the side of the Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics more than five months ago has upset the routine, causing much confusion and bewilderment among Ukrainians. They are asking themselves, how can it be that Kyiv could also be shelled in response to the shellings of Donetsk? “Isn’t the strongest military power in the world on our side? Why can’t it stop this war that has broken out?”
Western propaganda (and since 2014, Ukrainian propaganda, too), deeply corrupts a person’s understanding. It encourages the idea that a country like Ukraine, subordinated to the West, can do whatever it wishes so long as it supports the goals of the large Western countries. In this context, liberal-minded views in favor of peace do not count. Non-Western countries are, by default, considered inferior and local opponents of Western imperialism are suspect, be they governments or simple political movements.
Internal Dissent in Ukraine
To combat internal dissent, the Ukrainian state encourages its citizens to speak up against those it labels as “traitors” and “collaborators.” People who behave “suspiciously” by criticizing the actions of the authorities or even daring to declare responsibility of the Ukrainian authorities for the military intervention by the Russian Federation are considered traitors by default.
Of late, the news reporting of “criminal conduct” in Ukraine is telling the stories of the woman convicted by a court for the crime of reading Russian Telegram channels while using public transport; the man who was found in possession of the flag of the Soviet Ukrainian Republic; and the teenager who photographed an airport building.
A Ministry of Digital Transformation was established in Ukraine in 2019 with the help of the European Union and the U.S. It is part of implementing a strategy of silencing dissent. The ministry goes so far as to offer guidelines on how to correctly fill out a “collaborator report” to finger suspect acquaintances of “the enemy.” The ministry cites a typical letter sent to the chatbot єВорог: “His sister is the wife of a separatist who is fighting for Russia. They keep in touch and exchange information about the location of our army in the city.”
Often such denunciations become simply a method of settling old personal scores. These raise uncomfortable memories of the pogroms against Jews which marked Ukraine during the years of Nazi German occupation. For example, one of the examples of denunciations sent to the Ministry of Digital Transformation has been highlighted by Maksim Buzhansky, deputy leader of President Zelensky’s political party. He writes of a woman being targeted for the crime of collaboration: “She is pregnant by a Russian and considers herself to be something of a first lady of the village.” This is how simple envy or personal dislike can become a pretext for a witch-hunt under the guise of a political agenda.
One of the most egregious recent cases was the expulsion of Elvira Khomenko, a student from a university in the city of Bila Tserkva, 80 km south of Kyiv. Elvira was a student in the veterinary department. She wrote that enemies should be treated with kindness, that she does not eat meat, does not support the Ukrainian army, and does not support the killing of people. She is described as something of a hippie and peacenik who strongly maintains her beliefs and opinions.
At the end of July, she was expelled from the university and denounced to the SBU, Ukraine’s political police service. Elvira has since disappeared without a trace. Police are refusing to accept her mother’s statement in defense of her daughter, treating the mother with contempt. [As of August 1, 2022, the whereabouts of Elvira Khomenko are known only to Ukrainian authorities.]
In order to carry out its widespread, anti-Russia brainwashing in Ukraine, the Zelensky-led government has banned all opposition political parties and closed critical media. Over the past two years, half of the television channels in Ukraine have gone off the air, accused of pro-Russia sympathies. Since February 2022, all remaining media are obliged to relay only the point of view of the Office of the President, under threat of being accused of treason.
During this period, the opposition parties Platform for Life (social democratic), the Communist Party, the Socialist Party, the “Socialists,” the Union of Left Forces, the Sharij Party, the Progressive Socialist Party of Ukraine and the Labor Party of Ukraine have been banned and their property seized. Earlier, only party activity was suspended; the seizure of party properties is a new escalation. As the list of banned parties makes clear, they are left-wing for the most part. Their “fault” is their disapproval of the eight-year-old conflict waged against Donbas (which became the reason for the start of the Russian special operation in Ukraine).
In July 2022, the wealthiest Ukrainian, billionaire Rinat Akhmetov (number one on Forbes-Ukraine’s list of wealthiest people in the country) gave up control of his media holdings, although he and his media have been quite loyal to Zelensky’s office. Hundreds of employees lost their jobs. The “logic” of this business decision by Ahkmetov is that a Ukrainian billionaire has no need to own costly media if it cannot be used to advance his or her personal interests and “merely” serves to relay the point of view of the authorities.
Worker and trade union rights under attack
Under the pretext of the war in Ukraine, authorities have begun to actively attack worker and trade union rights. They are promoting regressive “reform” of existing labor legislation. This had failed earlier due to pressure by international trade unions. In early July, the parliament sent to Zelensky for his signature Bill No. 7251, which regulates the “optimization of labor relations” under martial law.
This legislative innovation significantly curtails the rights of Ukrainian employees and nullifies the main historical gains of the working class, rolling them back to the situation of the 19th century. Among the provisions of the new law is that Ukrainian employers are no longer required to limit the working day to eight hours and the working week can stretch up to 60 hours. That could mean a ten-hour working day with one day off per week, a twelve-hour working day with two days off, or seven days of eight and a half hours each with no day off! Thus will Ukrainian employers be able to save on overtime pay.
Back in 1810, the British educator and social philosopher Robert Owen advocated for a reduced work day; by 1817, he had formulated the slogan: “Eight hours’ labor, eight hours’ recreation, eight hours’ rest.” Oh, how the world of the 21st century is evolving—backwards!
In addition, from now on, Ukrainian workers can be fired on vague pretexts of no available work. Employers themselves will determine how this applies, depending on their interests.
A second regressive labor law
In July the Ukraine legislature (Verkhovna Rada) also adopted Bill No. 5371, on simplified termination of employment contracts during martial law. It regulates labor contracts for businesses of fewer than 250 employees, essentially canceling the provisions of the Labor Code for them. This amounts to some 80% of all companies in Ukraine.
Working conditions, working hours, holidays and wages will now be regulated not by law but by the terms of contracts drawn up by the employer. “Anything can be written in the contract, especially in conditions of unemployment. In fact, this means that Ukrainians will have to work on the conditions that employers will impose on them,” says Ukrainian lawyer Rostyslav Kravets.
The governing regime in Kyiv pushed through the bill, citing a familiar theme: “Russian aggression.” But the bill was originally registered in April 2021, nearly one year prior to Russia’s military intervention.
Formally, the bill was submitted on behalf of the head of the parliamentary committee on social policy, Galina Tretyakova, and a number of other deputies from the ruling Servant of the People party. Ukrainian trade unions had demanded Tretyakova’s resignation following a sickening speech in which she said that poor people should be sterilized to reduce the country’s welfare bill.
Bill 5371 was developed by the Ukrainian public organization “Office of Simple Solutions,” which was originally created by the former president of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili (2008-13), together with the associations of Ukrainian employers and the USAID program.
In other words, the deprivation of Ukrainian labor rights has been financed by a U.S. government agency. (As for Saakashvili, he is awaiting trial in Georgia under charges of violence against his political opponents as well as harsh restrictions against media outlets before and during his presidency. He is also charged with entering the country illegally, in October 2021, when he was first arrested and detained.)
George Sandul, a lawyer at the Kyiv public organization “Labor Initiatives,” commenting on Bill 5371, noted that the employee always has less power than the employer, and at the international level, numerous conventions of the International Labor Organization (ILO) are devoted to this issue. “De facto, this regime assumes that literally anything can be entered into an employee’s employment contract, without reference to Ukrainian labor laws. For example, additional grounds for dismissal, liability, or even a 100-hour week,” explains Sandul.
In June, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) appealed to Ukrainian authorities to remove the scandalous bill No. 5371 from consideration, as it contradicts the ILO conventions ratified by Ukraine’s “association agreement” with the EU (entered into force in September 2017) and European legislation.
Ukraine has in recent years served as a testing ground for anti-social reforms and cuts, which are then carried out in other European countries. These are all the more misplaced considering that Ukraine is one of the poorest countries in Europe and over the past eight years, there has been a massive outflow of Ukrainian workers westward in Europe or eastward to Russia.
Resisting military service in wartime
Since the beginning of Russia’s military operation, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian men have been drafted into the army and thousands have illegally fled across the border to dodge military service. Millions of women, too, have left the country, leaving many manufacturing facilities at a standstill. Even regular public utilities are understaffed, while many restaurants in the capital city Kyiv have closed as their chefs and other staff have left.
In July, the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Ukraine reported on the elimination of 45 escape routes used by men of military age. Those caught were traveling by foot, car or boat. One enterprising draft dodger tried to leave the country by swimming across a river in a diving suit. Fees charged by those guiding the escapees range from the equivalent of US$1,000 to US$20,000.
Forced conscription was brought on and has been intensified due to huge combat losses. David Arakhamia, the head of the Zelensky-led party’s parliamentary faction, has stated that losses amount to about 1,000 killed and wounded per day. The British Daily Mail reported in July that the death toll was around 20,000 a month. But official statistics of Ukraine’s losses are treated as classified information by the Ministry of Defense.
“The numbers of dead are a state secret during martial law. This is due to military expediency and the fact that the enemy should not know these numbers and use it for their own opportunities,” Deputy Defense Minister Anna Malyar said on July 14.
Economically, Ukraine survives almost exclusively on loans from Western partner governments and international banks. It finances its public budget expenditures only by some 30%. The main sphere of government expenses is, to no surprise, military. To a certain extent, the Ukrainian military can be described as a mercenary force of the United States, Great Britain and other NATO countries.
Ideologically, Ukrainian authorities openly position themselves as part of a “civilized West” waging war with a “barbaric East.” “We are the European army of a European country. The enemy will be destroyed consistently, systematically and as planned and expected, by a decent army of the good old West,” Aleksey Arestovych, an adviser to the head of the President’s Office, recently stated.
However, for this army, a significant part of its recruits must be snatched off the streets or from parks and workplaces. Since February, Ukrainian men between the ages of 18 and 60 have been barred from leaving the country. Starting October 1, this ban will also apply to women, who are being made liable for military service under the cunning theme of “combatting gender discrimination.” But this “fight against discrimination” is far from being an extension of rights; it is an extension of duties as defined by an increasingly unpopular and isolated governing regime.
Russian-controlled southern Ukraine
The populations of the southern and eastern regions of Ukraine oppose the regime in Kyiv for the most part, but since 2014 they have been forced to hide this. Soldiers of Ukraine’s armed forces continue to complain that, since the start of the Russian military operation, local residents are betraying their positions to Russian forces and to the forces of Luhansk and Donetsk, allowing these to more accurately target their military operations.
In one video from the city of Kramatorsk in the Donetsk region, still held by Kyiv, a soldier of the Ukrainian army complains that the locals do not like them and do not want war against the Russian Federation. He explains, “There are a lot of people here who are not being called up by the military registration and enlistment offices. We are brought here from all over Ukraine, but no one will involve the locals. The recent scenarios in Lisichansk [small city in the Lugansk region] and other territories showed that residents were willing to go to war, but against Ukraine.”
In fact, many Ukrainian soldiers are telling the truth of what is happening in the territories controlled by the Russian Federation and the Lugansk and Donetsk republics. However, “control” by Russia or the Donbas republics does not mean peace. Deliveries of heavy artillery from the U.S. and other large NATO powers now allow Ukrainian forces to shell more heavily their former territories in the east, sometimes reaching deep behind Russian/Donbas republic lines. The shelling of the territories controlled by Kyiv receives wide coverage in the Western press, but the shelling of uncontrolled territory by the Ukrainian army is completely ignored, underlining once again the prevailing system of a double standard in Western media.
In July, three Ukrainian drones with explosives attacked the nuclear energy complex (the largest in Europe) near the city of Zaporozhye located on the Dnieper River, the fourth largest river in Europe. The purpose was to disrupt the operation of the station, which supplies electricity to several nearby regions. Luckily, the concrete ceilings of the complex withstood the attacks by what was light munitions. The complex was designed and built in Soviet times to operate during wartime. Russian forces control the complex and are working with its Ukrainian engineers and other specialists to keep it operating.
At the same time, the Ukrainian special services, in conjunction with Western intelligence services, wage regular terror attacks in uncontrolled territories, threatening those citizens of Ukraine who cooperate with the Russian Federation or the Donbas republics. Many leaders of the Donbas rebels have been assassinated since 2014, notably the revered, former head of the Donetsk People’s Republic, Alexander Zakharchenko, assassinated in 2018.
Terror tactics are being used to prevent a return to peaceful life. These are prompting even former Ukrainian ultra-nationalists to reconsider their views on the conflict. In June, for example, Dmitry Kuzmenko, the head of a Ukrainian “territorial defense” (ultra-nationalist) paramilitary unit, and many of his former fighters decided to adopt Russian citizenship.
Meanwhile, deliveries of American “HIMARS” precision multiple rocket launchers and the shelling of Kherson led even the former leader of the Kherson cell of the Ukrainian fascist party Svoboda (“Freedom”), Eduard Bekharsky, to reconsider his views. “Today’s shelling of my hometown by the Armed Forces of Ukraine using American HIMARS put a bullet in my relations with Ukraine. My father was an officer in the Soviet army. I remember my childhood in the garrisons in the Urals. I am more Soviet than Ukrainian. And now I’m finished with Ukraine,” he wrote.
Since Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree in July on simplified admission of Ukrainian citizens to Russian citizenship, residents of other regions have been moving to Russian-controlled Kherson. However, their route, according to eyewitnesses, is quite difficult since it is necessary to pass through front lines and mined territories. Taxi drivers in the Kyiv-controlled city of Zaporozhye charge up to US$1,000 for such a dangerous trip.
There is also a legal option, but it costs $400 and up. To make such a trip legally, the traveler must submit an application to Ukrainian authorities and then pass a verification procedure by the SBU. Men do not use this option since they would immediately receive a summons to military service.
The coming social and political transformations in southern Ukraine
In July, the local authorities of the southern regions of Ukraine controlled by the Russian Federation–Kherson and Zaporozhye—announced the preparation of a referendum on joining the Russian Federation.
Preliminary plans call for the votes to take place in mid-September. This will severely curtail stated plans of the Armed Forces of Ukraine to return these regions under their control, since a vote to join the Russian Federation formally places the regions under the military umbrella of Russia and, perhaps, opens the way for entry of international peacekeeping forces from the Collective Security Treaty Organization, in which Russia is a leading member.
In Russian-controlled cities and towns in southern Ukraine, the interim administrations are distributing one-time social payments of 10,000 rubles (app. US$165) to residents, which is equal to the minimum monthly Ukrainian pension for elderly.
In June, internet service began to be provided from Crimea to these regions and mobile communications were established through Russian operators.
Unlike Kherson, many larger cities of Donbas have been heavily damaged due to the frequently used tactics of the Armed Forces of Ukraine to use schools, hospitals and residential buildings as shields.
Reconstruction in the heavily damaged city of Mariupol began in June. Russia is mounting an ambitious program of reconstruction assistance throughout Donbas. Large teams of building workers are being mobilized in Russia, including a clever program in which Russian cities partner with a selected city in Donbas and provide technical as well as material assistance.
Following the recognition of the Donetsk and Luhansk republics by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, brigades of workers from there are helping in the restoration. “They will provide serious help in solving the problems of restoring destroyed social, infrastructural and industrial facilities,” said Russian Ambassador to North Korea Alexander Matsegora.
He also said the DPRK already uses building equipment manufactured by enterprises in Donbas. “Our Korean partners are therefore very interested in acquiring spare parts and units manufactured in Donbas in order to update their own production base.” Kyiv has severed diplomatic relations with North Korea and Syria in response to their respective recognitions of the independence of the Luhansk and Donetsk republics.
In the Russian-controlled part of the Zaporozhye region, the roads damaged or destroyed in the fighting are being restored. A resident of the DPR, author of the left-wing Telegram channel “Concretely,” describes the process as follows: “Yesterday, I watched a road being repaired in the liberated territory. Repairs are being done more substantially than Ukraine ever did. Not only is the roadbed completely removed and restored, its support bedding (so-called pillow) is one and a half meters deeper. From the original road dating from Soviet times and ‘killed’ by Ukraine through neglect, only its direction will remain. A completely new road is being built, 100 kilometers long. The locals, I think, have never seen such a miracle; modern civilization has come to our steppes.”
In Ukrainian media, this news was presented as a case of Russians “stealing” the old asphalt from the roads because they themselves do not have such roads.
In the Russian-controlled parts of the Zaporozhye and Kherson regions, new tariffs for utilities were approved in July. Utilities in those regions are much less expensive than in the rest of Ukraine: Natural gas is less than one-fifth the price in the Russian-controlled areas; hot water is almost 60% less; heating is more than 60% less; and electricity is 45% less. Such are the economic benefits brought by Russia and which are very appealing to local populations.
Previously, Russian authorities announced the cancellation of all the debts of Ukrainian citizens owed for gas, electricity and water utilities, as well as bank debts. As a result, thousands of households in Kyiv-controlled territories have stopped paying their bills, expecting that Russia may some day arrive and write off their debts as well. This is one of the reasons why the regime of Zelensky is obliged to step up requests to the Western powers for additional financial assistance.
Apparently, the regions of Donbas and southern Ukraine will follow the path of rebuilding and restoration taken earlier in the Chechen Republic and Crimea.
Crimea and most of what became Ukraine following 1991 lived off the infrastructure legacy of the Soviet Union without repairing or updating it. After the 2014 referendum in Crimea (March 15 of that year), the Russians involved in restoring the infrastructure of Crimea were shocked by the degree of deterioration of buildings, pipes and roads.
In 2014, average wages and pensions almost tripled for Crimeans as a result of their vote to join Russia. Naturally, this only strengthened their loyalty to Moscow. Now Crimea and Chechnya are the most loyal regions to the Russian central government, not least due to the substantial financial injections into the economies of these regions. These are much higher, proportionately, than in other regions of the Russian Federation. The volume of infrastructure investments per capita in Crimea, for example, is 29% ahead of the Russian average.
In 2013, by comparison, the per capita GRP (gross regional product) of Crimea was 25% of that in Russia, the average salary was less than 40% of that in Russia, and investments were 30% of that in Russia.
Because of Western sanctions, tourism in Crimea has suffered heavily. As well, the blockade of water supply imposed by Kyiv did not allow the development of agriculture in the arid northern regions of Crimea. Ukrainian authorities blockaded the Northern Crimea Canal in 2015, which provided most drinking and agricultural water to Crimea from the Dnieper River to the north. The canal was built during the 1950s.
In place of tourism, the Crimean economy is now shifting toward industrial production, in particular, shipbuilding and engineering at Soviet factories that were virtually abandoned or on the verge of bankruptcy under Ukraine’s rule. Ukraine has allowed much of its industrial production capacity to degrade since 1991, saying it can instead buy superior equipment from Western corporations.
Among the largest projects in Crimea since 2014 have been extensive water supply and pipeline infrastructure; a new airport in the capital city of Simferopol; and the historic Kerch Strait Bridge, 19 km long and carrying trucks and autos as well as a two-track railway to and from Crimea and the Russian mainland.
Ukraine is today threatening to strike the bridge with missiles. Perhaps it is too much of an embarrassment to Ukrainian officials. Since 1992, several plans to build a Podolsky Bridge, four kilometers long, in the Kyiv region across the Dnieper River have failed due to bad planning or escalating costs.
In 2015, Ukrainian nationalists organized, in addition to the water blockade, an energy blockade of Crimea, blowing up power lines in the Kherson region. The destroyed power lines were finally restored at the end of July 2022. “Crimea has overcome the water, food, and transport blockades set up by the Kyiv regime, and now the latest energy blockade,” Oleg Kryuchkov recently announced. He is an information officer for the head of Crimea. “Crimea receives water through the unblocked North Crimean Canal, trade and transport links with the Kherson and Zaporozhye regions have been restored, and the energy system has been fully restored. Everything is returning to normal.”
All this said, there remain conflicting loyalties among business people in Crimea toward Moscow or Kyiv. Due to policies deregulating business in Ukraine, in accordance with the loan requirements of the IMF, private businesses in Crimea often lean in favor of Ukraine. Such businesses are more prone to evade taxes and not comply with sanitary and labor standards. The Russian state tightly regulates private businesses, in contrast to Ukraine, causing dissatisfaction with private taxi drivers who worked in Ukraine, at times without licenses and without paying any taxes. Some hotel owners—those who built their hotels in protected areas prior to 2014—are also dissatisfied, thanks to bribery and corruption.
Behind the scenes in Ukraine and its former territories, there is also competition between state-planned and private, neoliberal economies. In the Russian Federation, workers and technicians employed in state-run enterprises receive higher salaries and benefits.
Similar trends should be expected in the Russian-controlled territories of southern Ukraine and Donbas as soon as peace comes to them.
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