Tag Archives: Donbass

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.

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Two books on Ukraine

In my last post I wrote of the difference between popular and academic history. Two recently published books about Ukraine provide an opportunity to explore this distinction further. These are Gordon Hahn’s Ukraine over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the New Cold War, and Marci Shore’s Ukrainian Night: An Intimate History of Revolution. The former is a densely packed analysis of the causes and consequences of the revolution in Ukraine in 2014 and the subsequent civil war. The latter is a more impressionistic, jounalistic examination of what one might term the spirit of the revolution. Hahn gives a long, detailed and balanced account, replete with context and theory. Shore gives a short, superficial, but light and personal version of some of the same events. Because of this, Shore is likely to get many more readers, but if you’re prepared to put in the effort, Hahn will give you a much deeper understanding of what went wrong in Ukraine. Academic history is harder going than popular history, but ultimately more rewarding.

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Dolphin hunting in Lugansk

The ‘investigative journalism’ website Bellingcat has caused another stir this week by claiming to have identified a Russian general who operated in the rebel Lugansk People’s Republic (LNR) in Ukraine in summer 2014. Several radio intercepts from the period involve a Russian operating under the codename ‘Dolphin’ (‘Delfin’ in Russian). By comparing the intercepts with a recorded telephone conversation, Bellingcat has come to the conclusion that Dolphin is a Russian general, Nikolai Tkachev, who officially retired from the Russian Army in 2010 but who has since held a number of military-related positions, including being an advisor to the Syrian army and for the past few years heading a military school in Yekaterinburg.

Because the Dutch commission investigating the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines MH-17 has expressed interest in Dolphin’s identity, the Bellingcat report is being widely touted as further evidence of direct Russian involvement in the MH-17 affair. Indeed, Bellingcat titles its report “Russian Colonel General Identified as Key MH-17 Figure.”

I’m not qualified to comment on Bellingcat’s methodology, and so won’t express an opinion on whether Tkachev really is Dolphin, but I have a few things to say about other aspects of the affair:

1) The fact that there was a retired Russian general codenamed Dolphin helping rebels in Lugansk in 2014 is hardly news. It has been known for some time.

2) More broadly, the fact that there were individual Russian servicemen, and ex-servicemen, helping out the rebellion as so-called ‘vacationers’ is also hardly news. It’s necessary here to draw a distinction between individual vacationers and entire Russian military units. While we don’t have evidence for the latter in Donbass until August 2014, the presence of the former is not seriously disputed. Whether Dolphin was Tkachev or somebody else isn’t a matter of great importance in terms of our general understanding of what happened in Ukraine in summer 2014.

3) There is nothing in the radio intercepts linking Dolphin to MH-17. The MH-17 headlines are a red-herring. Bellingcat’s revelations, even if true, don’t add anything to our knowledge of Russian involvement, or non-involvement, in the MH-17 affair.

That leaves the question of what Dolphin was doing in Lugansk, and this is what I think is truly revealing. To answer this question, Bellingcat relies heavily on the reporting of Russian blogger Colonel Cassad. I don’t have a problem with that – in summer 2014, I found Cassad extremely well informed about events in the rebel republics, and he had a knack of getting things right when others were well off the mark. Despite his open pro-rebel sympathies, he developed a well-earned reputation for reliability. The fact that even Bellingcat trusts him is telling.

Via Colonel Cassad, Bellingcat quotes one-time rebel leader Igor Strelkov as saying: ‘Delfin’ and ‘Elbrus’ [another ‘vacationer] were involved in the coordination of separatist units in the LNR and partly in the DNR.’ Bellingcat then says,

In a 3 January 2015 blog post, Colonel Cassad described the chaotic situation in the LNR during summer 2014, describing Delfin as a figure sent by Moscow to bring order to the situation in Luhansk: ‘The shooting and murders in the LNR are an entirely logical reflection of the more anarchic nature of the local republic (in comparison with the DNR), where in the summer there were more than twenty different military formation in Luhansk that were not subordinate to anyone. Neither Bolotov [note: now-deceased leader of the LNR from May to August 2014] nor those who were sent from Moscow (this was in fact the reason why ‘Elbrus’ and ‘Delfin’ failed) were able to handle this.’

Let’s break this down. The situation in the LNR in summer 2014 was ‘anarchic’. There were a large number of rebel militias which ‘were not subordinate to anyone’. A Russian general arrived to try to bring some order to the chaos and ‘failed’. Moreover, he failed precisely because he was sent from Moscow (and so, one must assume, was seen as an outsider and lacked authority).

In other words – and this is the crucial point – what all this proves is that Moscow was quite definitely not in control of the rebellion in Lugansk in summer 2014. In fact, it’s obvious that nobody was. Instead, there were a plethora of locally-raised militia who did their own thing regardless of what Moscow wanted.

As I’ve said before, this matters, because if you can’t understand the origins of the conflict correctly, then you have no chance of finding a solution. The narrative which clearly emerges from the Bellingcat report (rather against Bellingcat’s desire, I suspect) fatally undermines the concept that the war in Donbass is entirely the product of ‘Russian aggression’.

Unfortunately, some in Ukraine are now doing their best to suppress this truth. A bill is now being considered by the Ukrainian parliament which would make it a criminal offence to deny ‘Russian aggression’. Rada Deputy Anton Gerashchenko, who is pushing the bill, has made it clear that he sees it as a way of silencing those who would call the war in Donbass ‘a civil war’.  We must hope that the bill never becomes law. If it does, it will become impossible for Ukrainians to address the truth of what has happened to their country.

Patron-client relations

In any patron-client relationship, the client has some degree of independence. On occasion, the client may even be in a position to more or less control the patron. This is the case, for instance, when the client understands that the patron’s prestige is dependent on the client’s survival. In such circumstances, the client has the patron over a barrel; he can do as he pleases because he knows that patron will have to continue supporting him come what may.

Afghanistan provides a good example of how this works. In the 1980s, the leaders of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) seemed to spend as much of their time squabbling with each other as with the mujahideen who were attempting to overthrow them. They pursued social and economic policies which their Soviet patrons often considered very ill-advised. Attempts by the Soviets to make them behave better never achieved very much. It was only when the Soviets made it clear that they were leaving that the PDPA under Najibullah began to get its act together even slightly. Similarly, we have seen in the last decade that although the current Afghan government is utterly dependent on American aid, the Americans aren’t able to control their Afghan clients, who appear to have a good understanding that they can get away with an awful lot and the supply of the American money will keep flowing. The Americans had the same problem in Vietnam: successive client governments did their own thing, in direct contradiction to American desires.

One can observe this dynamic at play in Ukraine. The Lugansk People’s Republic (LPR) is currently undergoing another of its occasional bouts of in-fighting, with forces of the LPR’s interior ministry taking to the streets against the republic’s president, Igor Plotnitsky, following Plotnitsky’s attempt to fire the interior minister, Igor Kornet. It’s hard to determine exactly what’s going on. Kornet claims not to be carrying out a coup, just to be acting against treacherous personnel, supposedly working for Kiev, in Plotnitsky’s entourage. Interior ministry forces are backing Kornet, while the military police and presidential guard are remaining loyal to Plotnitsky. Rumours abound that troops from the neighbouring Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) have arrived, and are preparing to merge the LPR and DPR into one. The LPR army, meanwhile, is sitting the whole thing out.

In the Western press, the DPR and LPR are often portrayed as nothing more than Russian puppet states. But if this is the case, where are the puppet masters? It doesn’t look like the Russians are playing any role in what’s happening in Lugansk, and it would be strange if they were. Undoubtedly, the LPR and DPR are highly dependent on Russian aid. Yet, it stretches credibility a bit to imagine that the Russian government wants the LPR to be the chaotic mess that it is and is pulling all the strings in the current coup, or non-coup, or whatever it is. Like Afghanistan in the 1980s, the LPR is clearly seething with personal rivalries, and local dynamics drive much of what occurs. Local leaders have a lot of firepower at their disposal. The few Russian officials that may be present don’t. The clients have much more independence than one might imagine.

In short, these most recent events should caution us against assuming that Russia determines everything that happens in Donbass. Undoubtedly, Russia’s relationship with the DPR and LPR is one of patron and client. But the patron isn’t and never has been in full control of the client. Given the way that the leaders of the LPR behave, it would probably be better for all concerned if it was, but clearly it isn’t, and we have to accept this reality. This has important ramifications in terms of possible political settlements of the war in Ukraine, namely that if one doesn’t want Moscow to take full control of Donbass, then the interests of its clients there will have to be taken into consideration. Moscow will have to take them into consideration; it can’t just abandon them. And Kiev and the West will have to take them into consideration if they want to strike a deal, for the simple reason that they exist and have some degree of power and agency. It may not be pleasant, but that’s the way it is.

Bite and hold

In the First World War, armies developed the tactic of ‘bite and hold’. Rather than trying to break through ‘the mud and the blood to the green fields beyond’ (which almost always failed), they would carry out well-prepared and thoroughly rehearsed operations of limited scope designed to seize (‘bite’) a small patch of enemy territory, after which they would halt and defend (‘hold’) what had been captured against the inevitable counterattack.

Judging from recent reports, the Ukrainian army has adopted similar tactics in its war against the Donetsk and Lugansk Peoples’ Republics (DNR and LNR). Over the past few months, the Ukrainians have carried out what RFE/RL calls a ‘creeping offensive’, occupying ground in the so-called ‘gray zone’ between the Ukrainian and rebel front lines. The Ukrainian attacks are not the result of local commanders getting out of hand and ignoring the official ceasefire. According to one analyst, they are the product of intense planning and rehearsal, and use surprise to bite off a small chunk of the gray zone and then hold onto it. Until recently, the rebels’ response has been fairly limited, perhaps because the DNR and LNR are under instruction from their Russian ‘curators’ not to escalate the conflict. This week, however, the rebel forces reacted strongly to the latest Ukrainian incursion in the area of Avdeevka. The result has been the most severe fighting for several months. Both Avdeevka, on the Ukrainian side of the front line, and nearby Yasinovata, on the rebel side, have been cut off from heating and water. Several soldiers and civilians on both sides have been killed.

There seems to be little doubt that the Ukrainians began the latest upsurge in fighting. Even RFE/RL, which is normally very pro-Ukrainian, admits as much. According to RFE/RL:

Observers say the Ukrainians appear to be trying to create new facts on the ground … since mid-December Ukraine’s armed forces have edged farther into parts of the gray zone in or near the war-worn cities of Avdiivka, Debaltseve, Dokuchaievsk, Horlivka, and Mariupol, shrinking the space between them and the separatist fighters.

Especially following the election of Donald Trump, Ukraine is anxious that it is losing Western support. Some commentators have therefore concluded that Ukraine is trying to provoke to a violent response from Russia and the rebels, in order to confirm its victim status in the eyes of the West and to put pressure on the West not to improve relations with Russia. This may be the case, but I’m not totally convinced, as it implies a capacity for strategic thinking which I doubt Kiev actually has. The fact that the current fighting began while Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko was meeting German chancellor Angela Merkel, and that Poroshenko felt obliged to cut short his visit to Germany, suggests that he was rather taken by surprise by the scale of the fighting. That in turn suggests to me that Ukraine’s ‘creeping offensive’ is more tactical than strategic in nature. It is a case of the Ukrainian army opportunistically seizing territory whenever it thinks it can get away with it, but on this occasion discovering that the rebels were willing to fight back.

Those in the West who are naturally inclined to support Kiev come what may, will no doubt take recent events as an excuse to urge their countries to increase their backing of Ukraine. The Globe and Mail newspaper, for instance, today ran an editorial drawing attention to the fighting in Ukraine and calling for Canada to renew its military training mission in that country ‘perhaps with some adjustment upwards’.

Given that RFE/RL says that one of the causes of the recent fighting is that ‘Ukraine’s army appears to feel emboldened’, emboldening it still further in the manner proposed by the Globe and Mail seems to be a recipe for even more violence.

In any case, Canada is rather exceptional in its pro-Ukrainian stance. Elsewhere, it isn’t obvious that Kiev’s creeping offensive will serve its strategic aims. When even RFE/RL notices that the Ukrainian army is responsible for major violations of the ceasefire, one may be certain that others have noticed too. According to RT:

A report in the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung said Berlin is increasingly laying responsibility for such incidents on Kiev. The latest tensions may have been provoked by the Poroshenko administration, which is concerned with a possible lifting of anti-Russian sanctions by US President Donald Trump, some figures in the German government believe, according to the newspaper.

Rather than consolidate international support for its struggle, Ukraine’s military offensives may, therefore, have the opposite effect. This highlights the poverty, or perhaps total lack, of strategic thinking in Kiev, which seems to have no coherent plan for regaining control of its lost territories. The creeping offensive sabotages any effort to find a political solution to Ukraine’s problems, but it doesn’t substitute a military solution. The rate of advance is so slow that the Ukrainian Army can never hope to retake the whole of Donbass this way. ‘Bite and hold’ may recapture small bits of territory, but it cannot end the war.

Neither war nor peace

Nezavisimaia Gazeta has published the results of an interesting Ukrainian opinion poll, which sheds light on why the conflict in Donbass remains unresolved.

According to the survey, 18.6% of Ukrainians support the idea of continuing the war in Donbass until final victory, down from 30% at the start of the year. However, only 23% are willing to countenance changing the Ukrainian constitution to give special status for Donbass, as required under the Minsk agreements. The most favoured policy option (30% of respondents) is to declare Donbass ‘occupied’ and isolate it. Only 12% of those polled supported the Minsk agreements in general. More specifically, although those agreements state that elections should take place in Donbass before the rebels hand control of the border back to the Ukrainian government, merely 24% of people supported this idea, whereas 51% opposed it. The agreements similarly oblige Kiev to grant an amnesty to the rebels. This has the support of 34% of people, but is rejected by 38%.

To borrow a phrase from Leon Trotsky, the situation in Ukraine is ‘neither war nor peace’. The poll suggests that this is no accident. Ukrainians have no great appetite for war, but they are unwilling to take the steps required to bring peace. If they have ended up with something in between, it is because that is what they appear to prefer. As Nezavisimaia Gazeta concludes, Ukraine’s president Petro Poroshenko ‘cannot not take these circumstances into consideration’. At this stage, therefore, a major change in Ukrainian policy is unlikely.