Today I recorded a long chat with Regis Tremblay about Ukraine, Donbass and Russia as part of his ‘Global Conversations’ series. You can watch it below. (Hopefully, he will correct the PhD thing!)
Today I recorded a long chat with Regis Tremblay about Ukraine, Donbass and Russia as part of his ‘Global Conversations’ series. You can watch it below. (Hopefully, he will correct the PhD thing!)
Short answer – No. The press has been full of hype this past week about an alleged ‘massing’ of the Russian army near the Ukrainian border, although the number of troops involved (supposedly about 4,000) is well below that needed for an invasion force. I discuss the issue in a new article for RT, that you can read here.
Suffice to say, as so often, the hype is overblown. If Russia does attack Ukraine, it won’t be something that happens out of the blue. The only credible scenario for such an attack would be if the Ukrainian army launched an all-out assault on the rebel forces in Donbass, killing large numbers of civilians. Were such an assault to take place, the possibility of Russian intervention is quite high. It would be catastrophic for Ukraine, whose army would almost certainly be crushed in short measure. Imagine what happened in Georgia in 2008 – the result would be much the same.
The consequences would also be bad for Russia – not only because of the inevitable loss of life, but because one can imagine that it would lead to an almost total severing of relations with the West. It’s best for everybody that this scenario be avoided. This means that Western powers should do what they can to make it clear to Ukraine that they would not support it in the event of war, and that Ukraine should not therefore attempt to regain its lost territories in Donbass by force. I don’t get the sense that they are doing this. If so, it is very regrettable.
Hopefully, sanity will prevail in Kiev. As I mention in my article, there seems to be some awareness of the risks. I reckon that the probability of all-out war is fairly low. But the fact that we are even talking of the possibility is a sign of how dangerous the situation has become.
I’d never heard of the Euro-Atlantic Security Leadership Group (EASLG) until today, even though it turns out that one of its members has the office next door to mine. Its website says that it seeks to respond to the challenge of East-West tensions by convening ‘former and current officials and experts from a group of Euro-Atlantic states and the European union to test ideas and develop proposals for improving security in areas of existential common interest’. It hopes thereby to ‘generate trust through dialogue.’
It’s hard to object to any of this, but its latest statement, entitled ‘Twelve Steps Toward Greater Security in Ukraine and the Euro-Atlantic Region’, doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence. The ‘twelve steps’ the EASLG proposes to improve security in Eastern Ukraine are generally pretty uninspiring, being largely of the ‘set up a working group to explore’ variety, or of such a vaguely aspirational nature as to be almost worthless (e.g. ‘Advance reconstruction of Donbas … An essential first step is to conduct a credible needs assessment for the Donbas region to inform a strategy for its social-economic recovery.’ Sounds nice, but in reality doesn’t amount to a hill of beans).
For the most part, these proposals attempt to treat the symptoms of the war in Ukraine without addressing the root causes. In a sense, that’s fine, as symptoms need treating, but it’s sticking plaster when the patient needs some invasive surgery. At the end of its statement, though, the EASLG does go one step further with ‘Step 12: Launch a new national dialogue about identity’, saying:
A new, inclusive national dialogue across Ukraine is desirable and could be launched as soon as possible. … Efforts should be made to engage with perspectives from Ukraine’s neighbors, especially Poland, Hungary, and Russia. This dialogue should address themes of history and national memory, language, identity, and minority experience. It should include tolerance and respect for ethnic and religious minorities … in order to increase engagement, inclusiveness, and social cohesion.
This is admirably trendy and woke, but in the Ukrainian context somewhat explosive, as it implicitly challenges the identity politics of the post-Maidan regime. Unsurprisingly, it’s gone down like a lead balloon in Kiev. The notorious website Mirotvorets even went so far as to add former German ambassador Wolfgang Ischinger to its blacklist of enemies of Ukraine for having had the temerity to sign the EASLG statement and thus ‘taking part in Russia’s propaganda events aimed against Ukraine.’ Katherine Quinn-Judge of the International Crisis Group commented on Twitter, ‘As the idea of dialogue becomes more mainstream, backlash to the concept grows fiercer.’ ‘In Ukraine, prominent pro-Western politicians, civic activists, and media, have called Step 12 “a provocation” and “dangerous”,’ she added
Quinn-Judge comes across as generally sympathetic to the Ukrainian narrative about the war in Donbass, endorsing the idea that it’s largely a product of ‘Russian aggression’. But she also recognizes that the war has an internal, social dimension which the Ukrainian government and its elite-level supporters refuse to acknowledge. Consequently, they also reject any sort of dialogue, either with Russia or with the rebels in Donbass. As Quinn-Judge notes in another Tweet:
An advisor to one of Ukraine’s most powerful pol[itician]s told us recently of his concern about talk of dialogue in international and domestic circles. ‘We have all long ago agreed among ourselves. We need to return our territory, and then work with that sick – sick – population.’
This isn’t an isolated example. Quinn-Judge follows up with a couple more similar statements:
Social resentments underpin some opposition to disengagement, for example. An activist in [government-controlled] Shchastye told me recently that she feared disengagement and the reopening of the bridge linking the isolated town to [rebel-held] Luhansk: ‘I don’t want all that trash coming over here.’
In 2017, a woman working with frontline families told me why she didn’t want reintegration. ‘These [the population of rebel-held Donbass] are people with a minimum level of human development, people raised by their TVs. Okay, so we live together, then what? We’re trying to build a completely new society.’
And there once again you have it – one of the primary causes of the war in Ukraine: the contempt with which the post-Maidan government and its activist supporters regard a significant portion of their fellow citizens, the ‘sick trash’ of Donbass with their ‘minimum level of human development’. You can fiddle with treating Donbass’ symptoms as much as you like, à la EASLG, but unless you tackle this fundamental problem, the disease will keep on ravaging the subject for a long time to come. In due course, I suggest, the only realistic cure will be to remove the patient entirely from the cause of infection.
War, said Clausewitz, is an ‘interaction’, ‘not the action of a living force upon a lifeless mass but always the collision of two living forces.’ This is one of the things which makes it so difficult to manage. You can’t just do x, and expect y to happen, even if y happened last time you did x, because there are always others involved, with wills of their own.
If war is an interaction, so too is peace. Short of one party’s total destruction, war ends because both sides choose for it to end, either because they’re both exhausted and choose to negotiate, or because one side realizes that it’s defeated and gives up. In the latter case, it’s not the winner who decides exactly when the war ends, it’s the loser. Or, as Fred Ikle put it in his book ‘Every War Must End’, ‘peace is made by the loser’.
In short, even when you’re on top, you don’t get to unilaterally decide when and how to stop a conflict. The key is getting your opponents to agree to stop. This can be done through a combination of negative and positive inducements, or by negotiation. But at the end of the day, the other side always has to agree (even if reluctantly).
Unilaterally-imposed take it or leave it solutions which involve the humiliation or total submission of one party are a bad way of getting this agreement. Given the loss of honour (at best), or of independence or even life (at worst), which such solutions involve, people won’t agree to them unless the negative inducements are extremely powerful (think Germany in 1945, for instance). Consequently, if you’re not prepared to put such extreme negative inducements into effect, you don’t really have any choice, if you truly want peace, but to talk with the other side. You have to get them to agree.
Somewhere along the line, sadly, we seem to have forgotten this (if we ever actually understood it). There’s this sense that great powers can draw up a peace plan for somebody else’s conflict and then force it down their throats without even bothering to consult them. It’s odd, for the most part decidedly unrealistic, and more than a little arrogant.
And so it is that Donald Trump today rolled out his ‘deal of the century’ to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Notionally, this is an American plan, but it seems clear that the Israelis were consulted about it before it was unveiled, and they obviously don’t have any objections to it. The problem is that neither the Israelis nor the Americans bothered consulting the other party to the conflict – the Palestinians. Unsurprisingly, the latter have wasted no time in rejecting the plan, as well they might given that the map released by the White House shows that the planned Palestinian state would look like this:
The Palestinian response is hardly surprising. Short of extreme negative inducements, it’s hard to see why anybody would accept a state divided up into lots of little pieces which doesn’t even have access to water. The whole thing seems to have been designed entirely to keep one side happy, while not bothering at all about what the other side wants (the hope apparently being that they can be bought off with a lot of money). One shouldn’t be too shocked if it all turns out to be dead at birth.
Sadly, though, this isn’t a unique case. The American approach to the war in Ukraine has been rather similar. The official line has been to put pressure on the Russian Federation so that it will abandon Donbass, which will then be forced to accept whatever terms Ukraine chooses to give it. More moderate analysts instead propose cutting some sort of deal with Russia (e.g. recognition of the annexation of Crimea in return for the abandonment of Donbass). But either way, talking to the people of Donbass, let alone their notional leaders, is out of the question. However peace comes, it isn’t to be by means of agreement with the people doing the fighting. Peace must be unilateral, or there won’t be peace at all.
Which, of course, is nuts. As I said, it takes two make war. It takes two to make peace as well.
Ukrainians are dying, and it’s Donald Trump’s fault. That’s the message of an article in The Washington Post today by well-known columnist David Ignatius.
As I’m sure you all know, US president Donald Trump’s troubled relationship with Ukraine is the grounds on which his political enemies are seeking to impeach him. The basic charge is that Trump abused his office by making military aid to Ukraine conditional on the Ukrainian government investigating his Democratic Party rival Joe Biden. Ignatius, however, argues that Trump’s behaviour is worse than that. For by treating military aid ‘as a personal political tool’, Trump has been playing with peoples’ lives.
This, says Ignatius, is entirely typical of how Trump behaves. Again and again, he has displayed ‘fecklessness’ in his foreign policy by refusing to stand up for allies like ‘the Syrian Kurds, and the South Koreans, and America’s NATO partners in Europe’. The Russians are stepping into the void Trump has created, and ordinary people are suffering as a result. As Ignatius says, in Ukraine
a low-level conflict continues. Here are some details from recent OSCE cease-fire monitoring reports: On Oct. 5, a man and a woman died after a grenade exploded in their apartment in Kurakhove; on Oct. 24, a man was injured by shrapnel near Luhansk; on Nov. 1, a man was injured by shelling in Spartak.
As you watch the impeachment hearings, remember this basic fact: While Trump was playing politics on Ukraine, people who depended on U.S. military aid were getting killed and wounded.
The insinuation here is pretty clear: Trump is killing Ukrainians. But is this true?
In the first place, no concrete evidence has been produced by Ignatius or anyone else to show that what was apparently a very short delay in the provision of aid has had any impact on the military situation in eastern Ukraine. And second, the exact examples Ignatius provides are not quite what he makes them out to be. Indeed, on first reading them, they immediately struck me as a little fishy. So I looked them up on the website of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM). This is what the OSCE had to say about the first case Ignatius mentions – the grenade in government-controlled Kurakhove:
The SMM followed up on reports that a man and a woman died after a grenade exploded inside their apartment on the second floor of a six-storey apartment building in 22 Pivdennyi district in Kurakhove (government-controlled, 40km west of Donetsk), about 16km from the contact line. On 7 October, medical staff at the hospital morgue in Krasnohorivka (government-controlled, 21km west of Donetsk) told the SMM that the bodies of a man and a woman (in their forties) had been brought to the morgue in the afternoon of 5 October with fatal injuries from an explosive device. On 4 November, a police representative in Kurakhove confirmed that a couple had died as the result of a detonation of a grenade inside their apartment on 5 October, and that it had opened a criminal investigation.
It’s hard to tell exactly what happened here, but it obviously wasn’t a case of rebel shelling. It sounds more like some idiot playing around with a grenade in his apartment, though there could be other explanations. But one thing one can say for sure is that a slightly faster delivery of US military aid to Ukraine wouldn’t have done this couple any good.
So let’s move on to the second case on Ignatius’ list – a man injured by shrapnel near Luhansk on 24 October. Oddly, I couldn’t find this in the OSCE reports despite searching for the words ‘shrapnel’ and ‘Luhansk’. But it’s worth mentioning that Luhansk isn’t in government controlled territory, so if someone was injured by shrapnel there on 24 October, US military aid to Ukraine wouldn’t have done him or her any good either.
But although I couldn’t find this case, a search for ‘shrapnel’ in the OSCE reports for October did bring up three others, as follows:
Here we have three instances of shrapnel injuries reported by the OSCE in October. What do they have in common? The injuries were all suffered by people in non-government held territory. In other words, they were all almost certainly victims of shelling by government forces. Yet Ignatius tells us that these were ‘people who depended on U.S. military aid.’
And it gets worse, because we also have the final case Ignatius mentions – ‘a man injured by shelling in Spartak’. This is what the OSCE has to say about that:
Again, therefore, this took place in non-government controlled territory. And so it turns out that not a single one of the victims of war mentioned by David Ignatius was injured as a result of rebel fire – the injuries were all either self-inflicted or the consequence of the Ukrainian military firing on civilians in rebel-held territory. If Ignatius’ argument is that these people need protecting and that President Trump has a moral duty to provide military assistance to the armed forces which are defending them, then the only logical conclusion is that the United States is providing aid to the wrong side.
Or perhaps the argument is just completely bogus in the first place.
The Russian and Ukrainian media have been abuzz this week over the news that the Ukrainian government has accepted the ‘Steinmeier Formula’ which is meant to help regulate the reintegration of rebel Donbass into Ukraine. Supporters of foreign Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko, as well as members of the Ukrainian far right, are denouncing the move as a betrayal. Others, though, hope that it is an important first step towards peace. In reality, however, I don’t think that the Ukrainian government’s decision adds up to very much. For sure, it’s a step forward, but only a very small one, and unworthy of either the hysterical denunciations or the fervent optimism.
The Minsk II agreement of February 2015 laid out the terms on which rebel Donbass would return to Ukrainian control. These included a ceasefire, a withdrawal of heavy weapons from the front line, and the commencement of a ‘discussion’ on how to hold elections in Donbass and on the nature of Donbass’s future relationship with Ukraine. Following this, an amnesty would be granted, elections held, and constitutional reform undertaken and legislation passed to provide special status for rebel-held areas of Donbass. The day after elections, Ukraine would regain control of its border with Russia.
No sooner had it agreed to these terms than the Ukrainian government began to backtrack, insisting that it would not grant special status to Donbass, and also demanding that the rebels disarm and the border be placed under Ukrainian control prior to elections. This reversed the order of events required by the Minsk agreement. The Steinmeier formula, named after its author, German president Frank-Walter Steinmeier, is meant in part to find a way out of this impasse. It says that once Ukraine has passed a law on special status for Donbass, local elections will be held, and the special status will come into effect on a temporary basis on the evening of the elections, and permanently once the OSCE has confirmed that the elections were carried out in accordance with international standards.
For hard-line Ukrainians, the Steinmeier formula is seen as capitulation as it admits that Donbass will have to get special status. However, even if the formula is accepted, the question remains of how and when the elections in question are meant to take place, and so get the ball rolling. And on this Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky has been very clear: the elections must take place under the supervision of the Ukrainian government, and can only take place once all rebel forces have been disbanded and the border has been restored to Ukrainian control. Zelensky also says that any special status for Donbass can only take the form of a law, not of a constitutional reform.
These conditions are completely unacceptable to the rebel leadership and its Russian patrons. First, the rebels insist that they must have a role in running the elections which, they say, they will only accept if held under the first-past-the-post system and not under the Ukrainian system of proportional representation. Second, disbanding their armed forces and handing over the border before any special status is conferred would amount to complete surrender and put the rebels entirely at Kiev’s mercy. This is clearly something they won’t do. And third, special status conferred by a law not by constitutional reform could be simply revoked by a parliamentary majority repealing the law. It provides very few guarantees for the future. This makes it something which is unlikely to be acceptable.
In short, while accepting the Steinmeier formula, Zelensky has imposed conditions which mean that it can never be put into practice. Viewing this, Baylor University’s Serhiy Kudelia remarks that either Zelensky is either ‘genuinely delusional’ or simply making a token concession in order to stay in the good books of his European allies while knowing full well that nothing will come of it.
I suspect the latter, though I think that it may also be a product of the restraints under which Zelensky is operating. Prior to this week’s decision, we witnessed the fiasco of foreign minister Vadim Pristaiko saying that he had agreed to the formula only for Ukraine’s chief negotiator, former president Leonid Kuchma, to then publicly refuse to do so. Eventually, it seems that Zelensky was able to get Kuchma to back down and sign the document, but it’s clear that even this small step was quite a struggle. Going any further would require Zelensky to fight a major political battle internally. It doesn’t look like he’s prepared to do so.
As I’ve said on many occasions, the peaceful reintegration of Donbass into Ukraine will only be possible if Kiev makes major concessions. It’s obvious that that’s not going to happen all at once. The best we can hope for is little steps which gradually move Kiev in the right direction. In so far as this constitutes such a step, it’s something to welcome. But I’m not overly confident that Ukraine’s internal political situation will permit further moves of the same sort, at least not for some time. I hope I’m wrong, but for now I don’t think that the Steinmeier decision changes very much at all. Peace remains a rather distant dream.
I’ve long said that if you want to bring peace to Ukraine, you need to develop a proper understanding of how the war in Donbass began and of the exact dynamics between the various players, including the government in Kiev, the Russian Federation, and the rebel movement. Attempts to view the conflict purely in terms of ‘Russian aggression’, ignoring its internal dimensions, are bound to point towards policies which see the solution as lying solely in pressuring Moscow. Such policies will fail because they ignore the local nature of the rebel movement and the genuine fears and grievances of the people of Donbass. At a minimum a peace settlement will require autonomy for Donbass, an amnesty, and a change in various Ukrainian policies such as those connected with language.
To make this argument, I have provided evidence in this blog and in various academic and other publications that the initial uprising in Donbass was local in nature; that the overwhelming majority of rebels have always been Ukrainian citizens; that the Russian government only slowly and reluctantly became involved (in large part to gain control of a process over which it originally had little control); that Moscow’s preference has always been for Donbass to be reintegrated within Ukraine with some sort of autonomy, a preference which has put it at odds with the rebel leadership; and finally that patron-client relations are complicated and do not give patrons complete ability to manipulate their clients (indeed the patron may even become something of a captive of the client). All this means that the wishes of the people of Donbass and of the leadership of the rebel republics cannot be ignored. Instead of blindly supporting Kiev as it does its best to alienate eastern Ukraine, Western states should be pressuring it to live up to its commitments in the Minsk accords.
This argument is, of course, entirely at odds with the prevalent narrative coming out of Kiev and Western capitals. It is satisfying, therefore, to read a report which pretty much confirms everything I’ve been saying these past five years. Entitled Rebels without a Cause: Russia’s Proxies in Eastern Ukraine, the report was published yesterday by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG). The ICG gets a lot of its funding from governments, notably Qatar, Australia, Canada, France, Finland, Norway and Sweden, as well as from foundations such as Soros’s Foundation to Promote Open Society. It’s not by any stretch of the imagination a ‘Kremlin proxy’. That makes its conclusions all the more striking.
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:
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.
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.
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.