It’s a game of two halves, Brian

Soccer is much on my mind this week. On Friday, my oldtimers team plays its season opener against the nearby town of Russell, and on Saturday I hope to be able to watch Arsenal face off against Aston Villa in the FA Cup Final. Victories for my team and for the Arsenal will make it a good weekend.

Outside the harsh environment of oldtimers, the main live soccer event this summer in Ottawa is the Women’s World Cup which comes here in June. So far it looks as if the tournament should be a great success. In contrast, the men’s world cup, scheduled for Russia in 2018 and Qatar in 2022, is in trouble following the arrest in Switzerland of seven senior officials of the sport’s governing body, FIFA. The seven are facing extradition to the United States on charges of ‘accepting millions of dollars in bribes over 24 years to allocate tournaments and rig elections.’

The arrests have immediately sent conspiracy theorists into overdrive. The Moon of Alabama blog, for instance, links them to an upcoming vote in FIFA’s congress to suspend Israel’s membership because of accusations of discrimination against Palestinian players. The implication is that the United States is attempting to discredit FIFA prior to the vote and deflect attention away from the Israel issue.

Others, meanwhile, link the arrests to current political tensions between America and Russia, and view them as a first step towards stopping Russia from hosting the 2018 World Cup. Russian military and political commentator El-Murid goes even further and sees the objective as being eventual criminal indictments against high Russian officials. ‘The fact that the Americans initiated the affair’, he writes, ‘shows us that the highest echelons of world politics are involved in it. Putin must receive his own Lockerbie, and nobody hides the aim. He must be made a worldwide outlaw, in order to suggest to his entourage that they should surrender their boss in return for personal guarantees.’

I don’t buy it. As the Russian Sports Minister has noted, the arrests are not actually linked to the World Cups in Russia and Qatar. Rather, the charges laid against the FIFA officials stretch back a quarter of a century and also include allegations concerning the 2010 World Cup in South Africa and the 2016 Copa America in the United States. Swiss authorities say that a separate investigation is underway to look at claims that Russia and Qatar won the rights to hold the cup finals in their countries by bribing FIFA officials, but that is a different issue. The vast sums of money involved in professional soccer have sadly corrupted the game at the highest level. That reality, far more than geopolitics, probably lies behind today’s arrests.

CAS conference

This weekend the Canadian Association of Slavists will be holding its annual conference here in Ottawa. You can find the program here. I shall be chairing a panel about the conflict in Donbass on Saturday morning. The speakers are:

Elena Maltseva (University of Windsor): ‘Lost and forgotten: The war through the eyes of the Donbass people’.

Ivan Katchanowski (University of Ottawa): ‘The far right in Ukraine during the Euromaidan and beyond’.

Halyna Mokrushyna (University of Ottawa): ‘Soviet “Dawnbass” or Donbass, a Euro-Ukrainian region? Conceptualization of Donbass in Ukrainian public discourse.’

The panel should provoke an interesting discussion.

Friday Object Lesson #29: Cup of Sorrows

Today’s object is a ‘cup of sorrows’. Its name derives from the tragic events which occurred this week 119 years ago, on Khodynka Field in Moscow on 18 May 1896. In expectation of free food and drink and souvenirs, including commemorative mugs, a crowd of about 500,000 assembled at the field to celebrate the forthcoming coronation of Tsar Nicholas II. Rumours that there was a shortage of freebies and that the mugs contained gold coins set off a stampede, which left over 1,000 Muscovites dead. In light of the disaster, the mugs acquired the title ‘cups of sorrows’. The letters ‘N’ and ‘A’ under the crown on the cup stand for Nicholas and Alexandra.

cup of sorrow

The myth of the land bridge

‘It is not our assessment that he [Putin] is bent on capturing or conquering all of Ukraine,’ said the American Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, in March, ‘he wants a whole entity composed of the two oblasts (regions) in eastern Ukraine which would include a land bridge to Crimea.’ The ‘land bridge’ idea is a popular one among Western politicians and international affairs commentators. A March article in The New York Times, for instance, described such a bridge as one of Russia’s ‘key goals’. The thinking is that because Crimea is isolated from the rest of Russia, Moscow needs to establish overland communications with it by conquering Ukraine’s southern coast. This would involve not only capturing the city of Mariupol, but going beyond the boundaries of Donetsk Province, through Zaporozhe and into Kherson, an advance of around 300 kilometres.

Closely associated with the land bridge concept is that of Novorossiia, a somewhat undefined entity which notionally includes all of the eight provinces of southern and eastern Ukraine. From Russia’s point of view, promoting the idea of Novorossiia has the advantage of providing ideological justification for further expansion to secure the alleged land bridge. In line with this, soon after the annexation of Crimea in March 2014 Ukrainian rebels demanded the creation of Novorossiia, invented symbols for it (including competing flags), and even set up institutions which were meant to represent it. Most prominent among the latter was the so-called Novorossia Parliament, chaired by Ukrainian politician Oleg Tsaryov.


This Wednesday, however, Tsaryov declared the Novorossiia project ‘frozen’. ‘It isn’t foreseen by the Minsk agreements’, Tsaryov said, ‘and we don’t want to be blamed for disrupting them’. The ‘parliament’ was no longer meeting, he added.

From a practical standpoint, this announcement is not very significant. Just one of several competing institutions formed in spring 2014, the self-elected Novorossiia parliament soon lost ground to the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics (DPR & LPR), which became the true locus of loyalty and authority in rebel controlled areas and which eventually acquired some form of legitimacy through the elections held in November 2014. Over time the DPR and LPR have gradually created the basic structures of real states, while Novorossiia has remained moribund. Tsaryov’s declaration is no more than an acknowledgement of reality.

Still, from a political point of view this acknowledgement does have real meaning. Tsaryov is a Ukrainian, not a Russian, and it would be a mistake to describe him as a simple puppet of the Kremlin. Nevertheless, had his project had strong backing in Moscow (whether financial or even purely moral), it is unlikely that it would have stalled so completely. Tsaryov’s statement is proof that the Kremlin does not support the creation of Novorossiia, but instead backs the provisions of the Minsk agreement which envision Donbass remaining within Ukraine, albeit under an amended constitution.

What, then, does this mean for the land bridge? The answer is simple. Not for the first time Mr Clapper and American intelligence have it wrong: Russia doesn’t want it, and isn’t doing anything in order to get it. Work began this week on the construction of a real bridge linking Crimea with Russia across the Kerch Strait. Russia, it seems, will be content with that.

Stuffing the rebels back into Ukraine

Denis Pushilin and Vladislav Deinovo, two of the political leaders of the rebel Ukrainian Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics (DPR & LPR), caused something of a stir earlier this week when they announced that the DPR and LPR were willing to accept ‘broad autonomy’ within Ukraine. ‘We proposed adding an article to the Ukrainian Constitution that the country’s regions have a right to self-determination. We are ready to carry out local elections,’ Pushilin said, although he added that, ‘If Kiev further breaks the Minsk agreements, the DPR will move to full independence.’

The Minsk 2 agreement signed three months ago obliged the Ukrainian government to enact constitutional reform by the end of 2015. The DPR and LPR have now submitted their suggestions for constitutional amendments to the Ukrainian constitutional commission as well as to the Minsk Contact Group. According to news reports about Pushilin and Deinovo’s statements:

Their proposals include the creation of detachments of people’s militia under the control of the local authorities, official status for the Russian language, and a special economic regime. ‘Also envisioned is the possibility of concluding a whole complex of treaties and agreements between the central powers and Donbass. Amendments to the articles of the Ukrainian Constitution on the justice system, the procuracy, local self-government, and the administrative – territorial structure of Ukraine, are proposed.’ … The draft also envisions a strengthening of Ukraine’s neutral status.

In Russian nationalist circles, Pushilin and Deinovo’s statements are proof that Moscow is preparing to surrender Donbass to the Ukrainian government. For instance, the well-known military commentator ‘El-Murid’ writes that Pushilin’s talk of a ‘move to full independence’ is an ‘empty threat’, and that ‘Pushilin continues to hold his post only because he pronounces exactly what he is told to [by the Kremlin].’ Moscow’s aim, says El-Murid, ‘remains the same, to stuff the DPR (and LPR) back into Ukraine as Kremlin puppet territories and to guarantee their existence with this status.’  ‘One must understand that the idea of an independent DPR and LPR has been eliminated once and for all,’ he concludes, ‘we are talking about an attempt to find a more or less honourable form of capitulation.’

Others disagree. The author of the popular blog Yurasumy notes that ‘Apart from the time of the announcement, there is nothing new. Both sides are weary of the [Minsk peace] agreements, but neither wants to be the first to break them. Thus there are beautiful gestures and beautiful phrases, but no real progress, as neither side is ready for it.’ Meanwhile, Boris Rozhin, aka ‘Colonel Cassad’, one of the best informed commentators on the war in Donbass, remarks that ‘it is practically impossible for these proposals to come to life,’ as there is no support for them either in the rebel republics or in the rest of Ukraine. Talk of ‘autonomy within Ukraine’ is ‘empty words’, he claims, ‘At present the objective circumstances are that Donbass will sail further and further away from Ukraine regardless of whoever wants to stuff it back into Ukraine in one form or another by military or political means.’ Russia, he concludes, ‘de facto supports the two unrecognized state formations, providing them with political, information, diplomatic, and military support.’ It is not about to surrender them to Ukraine.

I think that Russia’s preferred outcome is indeed for Donbass to remain within Ukraine, but with some form of autonomy. And it is true that the recent declarations are nothing new. Immediately after the Minsk-2 agreement, for instance, the head of the LPR, Igor Plotnitsky, made some very conciliatory statements about the LPR remaining within Ukraine as long as there was political reform in Ukraine. But it is also true that in practice this is unlikely. For, as Rozhin writes, Kiev wishes to ‘return Donbass into a unitary state with some abstract “decentralization”, where there is no room for “autonomy” and “federalism”, as these terms are considered the same as separatism.’ The head of the Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko’s parliamentary faction, Iurii Lutsenko, declared yesterday that ‘Donbass must not receive any special status different from the rest of Ukraine.’ Donbass could only receive whatever powers were also decentralized to other regions in the country. This effectively rules out any possibility of Kiev making constitutional concessions which the DPR and LPR might consider acceptable.

And then there is the tricky question of what to do with the rebel army. Pushilin’s proposal of a ‘people’s militia’ under local government control suggests that he sees this army becoming that people’s militia. That way, the rebel republics could officially re-integrate with Ukraine while not losing their ability to defend themselves. But there is no way that Kiev could ever accept the existence of such an armed force under local government control. At the same time, though, it is simply unimaginable that the rebels would agree to disband it. It is, after all, their only defence against the Ukrainian government reneging on any agreement. While there may be some solution to this problem, I confess that I have no idea what it is.

Overall, therefore, I think that the view that Moscow is preparing to ‘capitulate’ and sell the rebels down the river seems a bit far-fetched. Even if those in power in Russia do indeed want to ‘stuff the DPR and LPR back into Ukraine’, it is unlikely they will be able to do so, for that plan relies on the co-operation of the Ukrainian authorities and co-operation does not appear to be forthcoming. Although one cannot entirely rule out the possibility of reintegration, de facto independence for the DPR and LPR remains a more likely outcome. The rebels have made their constitutional demands. How Kiev responds will determine the future of the country.

The Self-Hating Russian

In recent years a new archetype has arisen – the ‘self-hating Russian.’ A well-educated person with liberal political opinions, the root of his or her hatred of Russia lies in his or her dislike of Vladimir Putin’s government. This requires him or her to deny that there is anything positive about modern Russia. Furthermore, since the Putin government appeals to history to support its legitimacy, the self-hating Russian has to deny anything positive about Russian history as well. Dislike of the existing order thus translates into contempt of everything to do with the person’s own country.

A striking example of this appeared in last Saturday’s New York Times in the form of an article by novelist Mikhail Shishkin, entitled ‘How Russia Lost the War’. It is a very poor article, not only because of its rambling, ranting nature, but also because what appears to be the central argument – that victory in the Second World War was really a defeat for Russia – reveals a remarkable lack of concern for historical context.

‘What would constitute a victory for my country?’, asks Shishkin, adding that, ‘Each one of Hitler’s victories was a defeat for Germany. And the final rout of Nazi Germany was a victory for the Germans themselves, who demonstrated how a nation can rise up and live like human beings without the delirium of war in their heads.’ Perhaps it seems like that to Shishkin now, but I am sure it didn’t seem like that to Germans at the time. Defeat meant over seven million German dead, the destruction of most of Germany’s major cities, the loss of significant amounts of territory, the forcible deportation of millions of Germans from the surrendered lands, and perpetual national shame. This was hardly a ‘victory for the Germans themselves.’

Moreover, by saying that defeat was good for Nazi Germany, Shishkin implies that defeat would have been good for Russia too. Speaking of his father, who served in the Soviet Navy, Shishkin opines that, ‘He and millions of Soviet soldiers, sailors and airmen, virtual slaves, brought the world not liberation but another slavery.’ This is a remarkable piece of historical revisionism. Faced with a genocidal threat of unprecedented magnitude, the Soviet people were quite literally fighting for their lives. Defeat in the Second World War would have been catastrophic for them. Not just Russia, but all the nations within the European boundaries of the Soviet Union, would have ceased to exist in any meaningful way. To be sure, because of its flawed economic system, the Soviet Union subsequently did a poor job of reconstruction after the war compared with Western Europe. But that does not mean that it lost the war, or that winning it was a bad thing. ‘The fruits of this victory were less freedom and more poverty,’ writes Shishkin. No they weren’t; they were survival.

Shishkin’s inability to see this says a lot about the ineptitude of contemporary Russian liberals, who seem to be unable to find a way to express opposition to the current government without simultaneously expressing contempt for their own country. Given this kind of talk, it is no wonder that they are unable to gather more than a couple of percentage points of support in national polls.

The views expressed by Shishkin represent the attitudes of a tiny minority of the Russian population. Far more representative are the 500,000 Russians who marched in Moscow on 9 May carrying pictures of relatives who died in the war (the ‘Immortal Regiment’). There is a serious lack of mutual understanding between Russia and the West at this point in time. Overcoming that problem requires that both Russians and Westerners listen to the voices of the other side, which means listening to those who best represent prevailing public opinion rather than just those who echo one’s own prejudices. Why then does The New York Times always choose to print the opinions of the latter but never of the former? Shishkin’s diatribes about living in ‘a country where the air is permeated with hatred’ serve only to spread misunderstanding further.