Johnny Russkii Strikes Again

‘We wanted the best, but it turned out like always.’ Viktor Chernomyrdin.

As Viktor Chernomyrdin wryly observed, the Russian state doesn’t have the greatest reputation for competence. For some reason, though, its secret services are an exception. From the time of the Trust right up to contemporary stories of Trump-Putin collusion, the Soviet/Russian secret services have appeared not only as ubiquitous but also as awesomely efficient, able to infiltrate governments worldwide, eliminate their enemies, and, in the case of Trump, even elect presidents. Watch the TV show The Americans, and you’ll get the impression that there’s just about nothing these guys can’t do.

For some this is proof positive that Russian military intelligence (GRU) couldn’t possibly have been involved in the Salisbury poisoning case. After all, the GRU are meant to be supreme professionals, but the Salisbury poisoning was so badly botched it smacks of rank amateurism. As for the supposed GRU agents, Petrov and Boshirov, not only did their actions in Salisbury display a distinct lack of professionalism, but their performance in their TV interview made them appear as less than intellectual geniuses, in short not at all the kind of people you’d expect in a supposedly elite organization.

But what if it’s all a myth? What if the Russian secret services are not so much Max Otto von Stierlitz as they are Johnny English? In light of recent revelations, it’s a possibility seriously worth considering.

Take, for instance, the widespread claims of Russian interference in the 2016 US elections. When details finally emerged of the Facebook and Twitter advertisements which are meant to have been the centrepiece of the great Russian plot, one could only conclude that they were remarkably crude. And then there was the fact that the ‘Russians’ (if it was they) spent hardly any money campaigning for Trump in swing states like Pennsylvania and Michigan, but a whole lot more in Washington, DC, which votes roughly 90% Democratic. Clearly, somebody didn’t have a clue what he or she was doing.

And now there’s the curious case of the GRU passports. Following the revelation of the passport details of Salisbury suspects Petrov and Boshirov, Bellingcat made the curious claim that you could identify Russian secret service personnel by the number of the issuing authority listed on their passports. This immediately struck me as bizarre. Would it not be incredibly stupid to have a special issuing authority just for VIPs and secret service personnel, so that passport control officers in foreign countries could immediately spot your spies?? This must be rubbish, I thought. Nobody would be that stupid. But then came some more revelations today from the Russian online media agency Fontanka.ru.

Fontanka had the ingenious idea of tracking down people whose passport numbers were very close to those of Petrov and Boshirov. This it was able to do by the fact that their names appear in public records, such as when they’ve paid traffic fines or bought property. The results are rather interesting.

One of those with a passport number close to Petrov and Boshirov is a guy named Krymsky. Fontanka found that he’d paid a 3,000 ruble fine in July 2015, and listed his address as 76B Khoroshevskoe Shosse. The building at that address is said to contain the ‘offices of several military units, including Branch Number 45807, whose commanding officer is Igor Korobov, the head of the GRU.’ It also happens to be ‘just around the corner from the GRU’s Moscow headquarters.’ As if that isn’t suspicious enough, another person with a similar passport number, by name of Andreev, also gave his address as 76B Khoroshevskoe Shosse when paying a fine. In autumn 2016, Andreev apparently flew to Belgrade with a guy named Potemkin. And guess what? When purchasing a plot of land and later buying a Nissan car, Potemkin also said that he lived on Khoroshevskoe! Coincidence? It seems unlikely. Of course, we only have Fontanka’s word for it that all this is true. But on the assumption that the Fontanka journalists haven’t made the whole thing up, it does seem rather probable that the GRU has been caught with its pants down, as it were.

Is the GRU stupid enough to launch an operation like that in Salisbury? Is it so dumb as to give its secret agents passports with consecutive numbers and an easily identifiable issuing code so that everybody scanning a Russian passport can immediately tell who’s a spook and who’s not? Having spent some time in military intelligence myself, I have to say that you can’t rule it out. And if you share Chernomyrdin’s view of his country’s competence, it’s more than just a possibility. What’s life in the GRU really like? Is it like the von Stierlitz classic Seventeen Moments of Spring? Or is it more a case of Johnny Russkii Strikes Again? The more we find out, the clearer the answer becomes.

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Rush to judgement

Going to war is generally a bad idea. I’ve long been interested, therefore, in analyses which provide some clues as to why political leaders make the almost certainly stupid decision to do so. For that reason, I’m grateful to RT for bringing to wider attention a report commissioned by the Norwegian government entitled ‘Evaluation of Norway’s Participation in the Operations in Libya in 2011’. RT gets a lot of abuse for publishing ‘fake news’, but it does provide a public service in producing stories which otherwise don’t get any attention in the English-speaking media. This is a good example.

Norway played a leading role in NATO’s 2011 campaign to topple Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. The Norwegian Air Force contributed six jets to the NATO mission, and dropped around 600 bombs on Libya, accounting for about 15% of the NATO total. At the time, the military campaign had almost unanimous support among Norwegian politicians, but by 2017 some of them had developed doubts, and so the Norwegian parliament instructed the government to conduct an inquiry into the operation. The report of the committee of inquiry has just been issued (unfortunately only in Norwegian), and can be downloaded here.

Outside of Norway, the press has almost entirely ignored the report, but RT picked it up, publishing an article entitled ‘Norway didn’t know much about Libya yet helped bomb it into chaos, state report finds.’ The article goes on to tell us that:

A Norwegian state report says the officials “had very limited knowledge” of what was going on in Libya, but promptly decided to join the US-led intervention, turning the once thriving North African nation into a terrorist hotbed. Norway rushed to help its NATO allies to pound Libya with airstrikes in 2011, without understanding what was actually happening on the ground or the dire consequences the intervention might lead to, a new state report has concluded. The commission, chaired by former Foreign Minister Jan Petersen, found that politicians in Oslo “had very limited knowledge of Libya” when they dragged the nation into the US-led bombing campaign against the Libyan government. “In such situations, decision-makers often rely on information from media and other countries,” the report says.

This perked my interest, so with the help of Google Translate, I’ve given the report a read. In fact, it says a lot more than the RT article suggests, and covers matters such as the legality and constitutionality of Norway’s war against Libya, the conduct of Norwegian military operations, and the humanitarian and political aspects of Norway’s involvement in Libya. What interests me most, however, are the findings concerning the decision-making process, so I will concentrate here on those.

As RT says, the report notes that Norwegian politicians knew very little about Libya or the conflict which erupted there in 2011. This is stated several times: ‘When the uprising started in February 2011, the knowledge about Libya among Norwegian decision makers was very limited’; ‘The Norwegian authorities had limited Libya expertise’; and so on. To compensate for this, the Norwegians relied on two sources: their allies, and the media. The former painted a very negative picture of the situation in Libya. According to the report, once Norway’s French and British allies had persuaded the UN Security Council to authorize military action, ‘the Norwegian authorities did not find it necessary to verify the Security Council’s understanding of the situation.’ As for the media, its reporting was one-sided and pressured the Norwegian government to act forcefully. Consequently, the report concludes, the evidence

suggests that warnings from, among others, Libyan opposition groups in exile, some regional actors, and human rights activists were accepted without any kind of critical examination.

In these circumstances, Norwegian leaders assumed the worst. Fearing that a massacre of the people of Benghazi was imminent, they felt that they needed to act immediately. According to the report, ‘The decision was taken in a very small circle’, and was ‘taken very quickly.’ The smaller parties in the ruling coalition were then ‘exposed to relatively large pressure’ to fall in line.

The speed of the decision-making left no time to adequately consider not only the evidence, but also the pros of cons of action and inaction. What becomes clear from the report is that Norwegian leaders considered only the possible negative consequences of failing to act without considering the possible negative consequences of acting. In particular, the report notes that the Norwegian government feared that if nothing was done, ‘there was a real danger that the country would be divided into two … the conflict would lead to government collapse and further fragmentation of what was already considered a dysfunctional state.’ It was feared that this might lead to a flood of refugees from Libya into Europe. What’s ironic about this is that exactly the things the Norwegians feared would happen if they didn’t act are what did happen because they did!

It is quite obvious from the report, however, that nobody thought of this. The report is written in the sort of bureaucratic style which doesn’t directly criticize policy. Instead, it hints, making suggestions which if you read between the lines point out that something went badly wrong. It concludes:

Norwegian authorities should work systematically in order to ensure the widest possible decision-making basis, including building up an organizational culture which facilitates a more systematic analysis of different scenarios and unknown variables. Possible measures are:

  • The establishment of so-called red teams, who have a mission to point out the challenges and consequences of an intervention.

  • Use of checklists in connection with the preparation of decisions. Such lists can be of great use in crisis situations, where a one-sided interpretation based on incomplete facts can weaken the understanding of the situation.

The fact that the committee of inquiry felt it necessary to make such recommendations is revealing. It indicates in a subtle way that the Norwegian government did not carry out a ‘systematic analysis of different scenarios and unknown variables’, and did not consider ‘the challenges and consequences of an intervention’, but did follow ‘a one-sided interpretation based on incomplete facts.’ It’s well-hidden, but it’s a pretty damning conclusion. Simply put, the government didn’t consider alternative possible outcomes of their actions, let alone weigh the pros and cons of different options, but just chose one option on the basis of inaccurate information which it didn’t bother properly to check.

To be fair, the report does take pains to point out that the Norwegian government was operating under intense pressure in what appeared to be an emergency situation which required a rapid decision, and that it did so in an atmosphere of great uncertainty. For this reason, it doesn’t criticize what was done but treats it as understandable in the circumstances. I have some sympathy with this perspective – it’s quite easy to criticize from a distance when one isn’t under the same sort of pressure and when, with the benefit of hindsight, one has the relevant information at one’s disposal. But, while I have some sympathy, I can’t ultimately accept the argument. In the first place, time pressure isn’t a reason not to consider the possible consequences of what one is planning to do. And second, neither the Norwegian government nor any of its NATO allies acted as if they were in a situation of uncertainty. Rather, the problem was that they seemed all too certain that their analysis was right and said as much in the most categorical terms.

In short, there was a rush to judgement. Alas, this wasn’t a one off. It’s a story we’ve seen repeated in many countries on numerous occasions in recent years. I wish I could say that it is shocking. Unfortunately, it comes as no surprise.

Mutual disbelief

A few months ago, the Joint Investigation Team which is examining the 2014 shooting down of Flight MH17 asked Russia to provide evidence about the origins of the anti-aircraft missile used in the attack. Today the Russian Ministry of Defence did just that, producing documents showing that the missile in question (identified by the serial numbers on the missile fragments) had been produced in Soviet Russia and then transferred to an air defence unit in Ukraine in 1986. The implication was that the missile was Ukrainian, and that therefore Ukraine, not Russia or the rebels of the Donetsk People’s Republic, must have been responsible for downing MH17 (assuming that the rebels didn’t capture the missile from the Ukrainian Army, which can’t actually be ruled out).

The immediate reaction of Western journalists was to scoff at the Russians’ claim. For instance, The Daily Telegraph’s Alec Luhn wrote on Twitter, ‘In short, Russia has cited its own documents to claim the missile that downed MH17 was delivered to Ukraine in 1986 and never left.’ Quite where Russia would have gotten documents on the matter other than from Russia is a question Luhn ignores, but his insinuation is clear: Russian documents can’t be trusted, and so this story isn’t worth further investigation. The Financial Times’s Max Seddon was equally dismissive. ‘How convenient for them to have discovered this now, four years after the fact,’ he wrote on Twitter (where the top of his feed continues to show a Tweet saying that ‘Russia’s team is so bad fans are worried they won’t make it out of the World Cup group stage’!). And the Kyiv Post’s Christopher Miller showed a picture of a giggling journalist, and remarked ‘The face of the person in the crowd at the Russian MOD briefing on MH17 tells you all you need to know about the latest desperate attempt to deflect blame for the disaster.’

Western journalists’ rapid dismissal of the Russian documents contrasts with their equally rapid acceptance of documents purporting to be the passport applications of Salisbury poisoning suspects Aleksandr Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov. I have absolutely no idea whether any of these documents are genuine. For all I know, all or none or some of them might be. What concerns me here is what the journalists’ reactions tell us about their biases, namely that as a matter of course they don’t trust anything coming out of the mouth of Russian officials.

My observations of the Russian media show me that the same is true of Russians, albeit the other way round, i.e. they display an almost total distrust of anything said by Westerners. RT editor Margarita Simonyan, who carried out a recent interview with the Salisbury suspects, expressed the sentiment very clearly on the political talk show 60 Minutes the other day. She didn’t have an opinion as to whether Petrov and Boshirov were telling the truth, she said, but what she did know was that Western intelligence agencies had lied about Iraqi WMD and had published a document which named her 27 times as leading an effort to undermine American democracy, something which was completely untrue. Why she should believe anything the West said, she asked? Reading the Russian press, and watching other TV shows, I get the impression that this attitude is fairly widespread.

There are some good reasons for Westerners not to trust the statements of the Russian government (which has, to say the least, been less than transparent and truthful regarding its involvement in the war in Donbass), as well as for Russians not to trust what’s said in the West (where both politicians and journalists have peddled all sorts of nonsense on matters such as Iraqi WMD, Colonel Gaddhafi giving his troops Viagra in order to commit rape, Russian atrocities in Syria (while ignoring the destruction caused by American bombing), and so on). Western commentary on Russia is often so far removed from reality as to appear deranged. The same, sadly, is often true of Russia commentary on the West. My point, therefore, is not to say that one side or other is right or wrong. Rather, it is that we seem to have reached a situation in Russian-Western relations of almost complete mutual disbelief. The perception that the other side is engaging in propaganda and ‘information war’ leads people to instinctively dismiss what it is saying, even when it is well-grounded in fact. That in turn leads them to adopt extreme positions, thereby rendering themselves even less credible in the eyes of the other side. The result is a vicious circle of escalating distrust.

Is there any way out of this mess? As I’ve said before, I’m not optimistic.

Stubborn resistance

The latest edition of the journal Ethics and International Affairs contains a number of interesting articles on international law and the ethics of war. Several of them are worth commenting on, but I want to focus on a piece by Alex Bellamy, Director of the Asia Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect and Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at The University of Queensland, Australia. Bellamy is the author of quite a good introductory book on just war theory. As his job title would suggest, he’s something of an R2P advocate, and in his latest article he tackles the idea that during civil wars outside parties should support the state against insurgents. This idea rests on the principle that the state will probably win, and so it’s best to help it win as quickly as possible, so reducing overall bloodshed. The fact that Bellamy considers it necessary to address the idea is almost certainly a product of the situation in Syria, where government troops are the on verge on launching a final offensive to clear the country of rebel forces. The final triumph of the ‘Assad regime’ now seems so certain that even as hawkish a commentator as Max Boot has said that it would be best at this point if everybody helped Assad so as the get the war over and done with. Bellamy doesn’t like this. He calls it the ‘fatalist approach’ and in his article, entitled ‘Ending Atrocity Crimes: the False Promise of Fatalism’, he urges the likes of Boot to reconsider.

Now, I’m all for people taking on Max Boot, and would normally side with anybody who wants to do such a thing, but in this case, Boot is closer to the truth than Bellamy. For all his aggressiveness, Boot’s ultimately about the forceful pursuit of the national interest, not grandiose ideas of human rights or the international order. Liberal interventionists like Bellamy, by contrast, are all about the latter. And that’s where they go badly wrong.

In his article, Bellamy admits that the idea of helping states to defeat insurgents is not without merit, even in cases where the states in question are guilty of serious crimes. He points out that ‘when states prevail quickly over their domestic opponents, they tend to kill fewer civilians’. Wars in which the rebels prevail and which end in regime change tend, by contrast, to be very prolonged and involve much more death and destruction. Also, peace is normally more long lasting when one side or other wins decisively.

Despite this, Bellamy argues that helping states defeat their rebel enemies is a bad idea. He provides three reasons, which he calls ‘recurrence, precedence, and rights’. First (‘recurrence’), if states learn that they can employ atrocities against their citizens and get away with it, they will do so again and again. As he says, ‘Vladimir Putin came to power by employing indiscriminate violence against Chechnya to good effect in the Second Chechen War, and went on to support similar tactics in Syria.’ Second (‘precedence’), if states see that the international community turns a blind eye to criminal activity by other states, and even helps those states achieve victory, they will draw the conclusion that they can behave badly too. Again, he cites ‘the aforementioned adoption by Syrian government forces of tactics perfected by Russia during the Second Chechen War.’ And third (‘rights’), ‘Privileging order by standing aside as grave violations of rights are committed is patently inconsistent not only with the obligations of international human rights and  humanitarian law but also with the principles and purposes of the United Nations itself’. Ignoring such violations in order to bring wars to a quick end would do ‘great harm to the legitimacy of both the international legal order itself … and the compact between states and peoples.’

Bellamy remarks that his approach is a rule-consequentialist one, that is to say that he is arguing about what would be the best rule rather than what is best in any single instance. The fact that in some individual cases supporting a repressive government would bring a war to an end and so reduce suffering is not reason enough to create a rule that one should always do such a thing. If this was done all the time the negative consequences would outweigh the positive ones. One must, therefore, accept the additional suffering in this one case in order to support the rule which does the most good when applied repeatedly.

I have no problem with rule consequentialist arguments and have often used them myself. But they are very dependent upon judgements of future consequences which one cannot actually know. In this specific case, I think that Bellamy’s judgement is rather coloured by inaccurate assessments of how actions in one instance impact upon actions in another. His arguments concerning recurrence and precedence, for instance, draw on the Chechen example and claim that failure to confront Russia in Chechnya led to Russia, and Syria, committing atrocities during the Syrian civil war. But the link between Russian tactics in Chechnya and the methods used in Syria is decidedly tenuous. As I’ve said before, the tactics and level of force employed by the Russians and Syrians are not very obviously different from those employed by the United States and its various allies in places such as Fallujah, Mosul, and Raqqa. And that is for the very good reason that if you’re going to expel a heavily armed and determined enemy from a city, then you don’t have many options other than to act in that way. In short, it’s got nothing to do with recurrence or precedence.

Moreover, as I’ve also said before, the elevation of ‘rights’ over peace is contradictory because by extending war and increasing the level of violence one inevitably undermines people’s rights, in particular the right to life. It’s also wrong to claim, as Bellamy does, that it’s a mistake to prioritize order over rights, for the simple reason that order is an essential precondition of rights. Bellamy ends his article by saying that we ‘need a politics of stubborn resistance.’ I find this phrase rather scary. In the case of Syria, what could this mean but war and yet more war? After all, if we aren’t going to let Assad win, there’s only two alternatives: war without end; or a war to overthrow the government (which only be achieved at a massive cost in human life). It’s hard to see how either option would enhance Syrians’ rights.

In any case, I think that Bellamy is tilting at windmills, in that I don’t think that there are many people who are saying that it should be a general rule that in civil wars one should always support the state. After all, if it’s a war which the state is losing, the logic of ending it quickly would dictate supporting the rebels. Perhaps a better rule might be to support whichever side is most likely to win in order to enable it do so as rapidly as possible. But that also wouldn’t be a very good rule, as it’s not that easy to predict who’s going to win and people are going to get it repeatedly wrong and end up supporting the weaker side, so making things worse. For instance, based on my memories on what was being said at the time along the lines of ‘Assad is doomed’, I’m reasonably confident that when the Americans decided to get involved in the Syrian civil war on the side of the rebels they were pretty confident that they were backing a winner. Instead, they backed a bunch of losers, and so prolonged the war and increased the suffering of the Syrian people.

Studies have shown very clearly that, absent foreign intervention, civil wars generally finish fairly rapidly. Foreign intervention is strongly correlated with longer wars and increased suffering. If I may turn Bellamy’s rule consequentialist logic against him, then it is clear that if one is looking for the rule which over time does the least harm, then it isn’t one which says intervene on behalf of the state in civil wars, nor is it one which says intervene on behalf of the rebels, nor is it one which says intervene on behalf the side most likely to win. Rather, it’s one which says ‘Don’t intervene at all!’ For sure, that would require us to refrain from intervening in the few instances when intervention might do some good, but it would also force us to refrain in the far more numerous instances when it would do harm. Overall, the world would be much better off as a result. The dogmatic pursuit of human rights may make people feel virtuous, but in the end morality has to rest on practical realities, and those dictate that the strategy of ‘stubborn resistance’ is deeply counterproductive.

Novichok suspects

With good reason, the news that the British police have identified two suspects in the Salisbury novichok poisoning case confirms what most people already thought – that those responsible came from Russia. The claims that the alleged perpetrators were agents of the Russian military intelligence agency, the GRU, and that the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal was ordered by somebody at a high level outside the GRU remain unproven. Nevertheless, the latest news puts the Russian government in an awkward position and places a serious burden of responsibility on it to take action against the alleged assassins.

The British police have said that the names of the two assassins – Aleksandr Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov – are likely aliases, and have appealed for help in discovering their true identities. The British government, meanwhile, has said that the two are GRU agents. This is somewhat problematic. How can the British know that the pair work for the GRU if they don’t actually know who they are??

petrov_boshirov
‘Aleksandr Petrov’ and ‘Ruslan Boshirov’ in Salisbury.

Also problematic was a statement by British Prime Minister Theresa May, who said today that:

The GRU is a highly disciplined organisation with a well-established chain of command. So this was not a rogue operation. It was almost certainly also approved outside the GRU at a senior level of the Russian state.

This may well be true, but it is an assumption not a fact, and personally I tend not to assume too much discipline on the part of Russians. As yet, the Russian state must remain a prime suspect in the affair, but the case against it cannot be considered closed.

Still, if it is true, as reported, that traces of novichok were found in the two men’s hotel room, it is next to impossible to deny that they were indeed the people responsible for the attack (while also raising some interesting questions about how they failed to poison themselves, and so on). Given this, we can say with some certitude that the assassins travelled to the UK from Russia on Russian passports. That places a serious burden of responsibility on the Russian government to do something to address what was a serious crime. If the two weren’t GRU agents, as the Russians insist, then the only way for the Russian authorities to clear their own name is to help the British identify Petrov and Borishov and then take action against them. Failure to do so will inevitably be interpreted as an admission of guilt.

Double standards and the Rules-based order

A year ago this week, I gave a presentation at a conference at the Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Research in Moscow on the topic of ‘Human Rights Reasoning and Double Standards in the Rules-Based Order’. There was some talk of publishing it on a Russian website, but as that hasn’t happened I’ve decided to publish it here. It is long, but I hope that you will find it worth the effort. Here goes:

 

Human Rights Reasoning and Double Standards in the Rules-Based Order

When seeking a solution for the current tensions between Russia and the West, we need first of all to determine what the root problem is. For many in the West, the root problem is Russian aggression, the dictatorial nature of the Russian regime, and even the evil character of President Vladimir Putin. For many in Russia, it is American hegemony and Western double standards. The tendency to see the cause of conflict as lying in the hostile nature of the other is fairly common, but international relations scholars have long since understood that conflict is very often a product not of aggression by one side or the other but of misperception and mutual misunderstanding. These in turn have their own causes, which are far too many to recount here, but one cause of misunderstanding is the fact that the same words or the same concepts mean different things to different people.

So, for instance, a few years ago Russia and NATO countries reached an agreement that security in Europe should be considered indivisible. But they understood this completely differently. The Russians thought that this meant that NATO had agreed that European security had to encompass all of Europe including Russia, with no divisions in a geographical sense. But NATO thought that Russia had agreed that security was indivisible in the sense that it should not be divided up into different types of security, such as military security and human security, and so accepted the idea that human rights were an inseparable part of security. This mutual misunderstanding meant that future discussions on the matter went nowhere.

Today, both Russia and Western countries claim to believe in a rules-based international order, and each accuses the other of breaking the rules of the international system; Russia by annexing Crimea and supporting rebellion in Ukraine; and the West by invading Iraq, toppling Muamar Gaddhafi, and supporting rebellion in Syria. What I want to show today is that part of the problem is that the two sides interpret a rules-based order very differently. For Russia, it is a system in which the same set of rules applies to everybody. To the West, it is a system in which one set of rules applies to the just and another to the unjust. This leads Russia to accuse the West of double standards. In a sense, this accusation is justified, but it isn’t just a case of hypocrisy but also a case of a different conception of what the rules are.

Continue reading Double standards and the Rules-based order

A question of attitude

A couple of Ukraine-related items caught my attention this week.

The first is a report by Baylor University professor Serhiy Kudelia which discusses how to bring peace to Donbass. Kudelia starts by saying that Western states have regarded the resolution of the war in Donbass as being dependent on changing Russian behaviour. This is insufficient, he says, for ‘the successful reintegration of Donbas into Ukraine … rests on designing a new institutional framework that can provide long-term guarantees to civilians and separatist insurgents.’ Kudelia says that academic literature on conflict resolution would suggest four elements to such a framework:

  1. Autonomy for Donbass within Ukraine. Such autonomy would come with risks, by entrenching local rulers with patronage networks outside of central control and with the means to challenge central authority. To reduce these risks, Kudelia suggests giving autonomy not just to the territories currently controlled by the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics (DPR & LPR), but to the whole of Donbass, thereby bringing within the autonomous region some more pro-Ukrainian elements of the population as well as groups not connected to the DPR/LPR power structures. He also suggests devolution of power within the autonomous region to weaken the potentially disruptive consequences of hostile elements controlling the region’s government.
  2. Transformation of the rebel state and military structures into political parties. Experience in other countries suggests that when this happens, the prospects of a successful transition increase substantially.
  3. Comprehensive and unconditional amnesty for everyone involved in the war. For obvious reasons, rebel leaders won’t agree to the first two proposals without an amnesty. Past experience speaks to the necessity of this measure.
  4. No elections in Donbass for two to three years. Kudelia notes that, ‘Holding elections in a volatile post-conflict environment creates ample opportunities for voter intimidation, electoral fraud, and disinformation campaigns that could build on conflict-related divisions.’ Kudelia doesn’t say who would rule Donbass in the meantime. I would have to assume that it would mean that the existing authorities would remain in place. That could be problematic.

With the exception of that last point, these are sensible suggestions. But when boiled down to their essentials, they don’t differ significantly from what is demanded in the Minsk agreements – i.e. special status for Donbass and an amnesty. As such, while I don’t think that the leadership of the DPR and LPR would like these proposals, my instincts tell me that they would be quite acceptable to the Russian government, which would probably be able to coax the DPR and LPR into agreeing to them. If implemented, the results would be something Moscow could portray as a success of sorts.

And there’s the rub. For that very reason, I can’t see Kiev agreeing to any of this. Kudelia’s argument is founded on the idea that there’s more going on in Donbass than Russian aggression. Accepting that something has to be done to ‘provide long-term guarantees to civilians and separatist insurgents’ means accepting that there are civilians and insurgents who need reassuring, not just Russian troops and mercenaries. And that means changing the entire narrative which Kiev has adopted about the war. So while Kudelia’s proposals make sense (after all, what’s the alternative? How could Donbass be reintegrated into Ukraine without autonomy and an amnesty?), what’s lacking is any sense of how to get there.

A large part of the problem, it seems, is the attitude in Kiev. This becomes very clear in the second item which caught my attention – an article on the website Coda entitled ‘Now Healthcare is a Weapon of War in Ukraine.’ The article describes how the DPR and LPR are encouraging Ukrainians to come to rebel territory to receive free medical treatment, and then using this as propaganda to win support for their cause. This is despite the fact, as the article shows, that the medical facilities in the two rebel republics are in a very poor state. Author Lily Hyde isn’t able to confirm how many Ukrainians have taken up the rebel offer of free medical aid, but does repeat a claim by the rebel authorities that 1,200 people have done so.

What interests me here is not the sensationalist headlines about healthcare being weaponized, but the question of why Ukrainians might feel it necessary to go to the effort of crossing the front lines to get treatment. And the article provides an answer, namely that parts of Donbass ‘are trapped in a precarious limbo, still under Ukrainian government control but cut off from key services like healthcare.’ The war destroyed much of the healthcare system in Donbass, but ‘Ukraine provides no financial or other incentives for medics to work in frontline areas’, and has done little to repair shattered infrastructure. Healthcare seems to be a lower priority than fighting ‘terrorism’.

While the DPR and LPR use healthcare as a ‘weapon’ by providing it to people, Kiev has ‘weaponized’ health in another way – by depriving people of it. As the article reports:

Kiev has not outlawed receiving medical treatment in occupied Donetsk or Luhnaks. But collaborating with the separatists – or supporting their propaganda efforts – is illegal. How exactly such charges are defined is not clear, but past experience has taught both individuals and organizations to be wary of such accusations. The Ukrainian authorities have investigated non-governmental organizations (NGOs) based in Ukraine who have provided foreign-funded medicines and other supplies to occupied Donetsk and Luhansk. NGOs working there have been banned by the de fact authorities [of the DPR and LPR] on similar charges. Doctors have found themselves placed on blacklists by both Ukrainian officials and the separatists, accused of being ‘terrorist collaborators’ by one side, or of being spies by the other.

Hyde contrasts the Ukrainian government’s policies towards the DPR and LPR with that of Georgia, where:

The government offers free healthcare for people from Abkhazia, a breakaway territory it still claims which is now under de facto Russian occupation. The government is building a modern hospital in the nearest town to the boundary line, aimed at people from Abkhazia.

Essentially, says Hyde, it’s ‘a question of attitude’. She cites Georgy Tuka, Ukraine’s Deputy Minister for Temporarily Occupied Territories – ‘“There’s a wish to punish people,” Tuka acknowledged.’

That’s quite an admission from a government minister.

Even if the details need fleshing out, the institutional framework required to reintegrate Donbass into Ukraine has been pretty obvious for a long time now. The problem has been getting people to accept it. It is indeed, therefore, ‘a question of attitude’. Sadly, the prevailing attitude stands firmly in the way of the institutional changes required for peace. The desire seems to be to punish people, not to reach agreement with them in order to promote reintegration and reconciliation. The issue, then, is whether this attitude can be changed (and if so, how) or whether it is now so firmly entrenched that there is nothing which can be done. Sadly, I fear that it may be the latter.

Russia, the West, and the world

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