Tag Archives: Ukraine

Book review: The Long Hangover

Shaun Walker, the Moscow correspondent on The Guardian, has a new book out, entitled The Long Hangover: Putin’s New Russia and the Ghosts of the Past. It advances the thesis that … and this is where I run into a problem because he never explicitly says what his thesis is. But it’s sort of something like this: in an effort to unite the Russian people and raise the country’s patriotic spirit, Vladimir Putin has focused on a narrative of victory, above all victory in the Second World War. This focus has contributed to a situation in which Russians have failed to come to terms with the negative aspects of their Soviet past. This in turn helped to provoke and sustain the war in Ukraine.

I say ‘sort of something like this’ because it’s never fully developed. Instead, what Walker gives us is a series of stories of events he has witnessed and people he has interviewed. Weaving them together is the theme of historical memory. These stories are all rather negative in character, in the sense that they focus entirely on the bad aspects of Russia’s (or more often the Soviet Union’s) past. Walker, for instance, visits Kalmykia and discusses the deportation of the Kalmyks in the Second World War; goes to Chechnya and discusses the Chechen wars of the 1990s as well as the deportation of the Chechens in 1944; goes to Magadan and visits old Gulag sites; and goes to Crimea and talks about the deportation of the Crimean Tatars.

The patriotic mood associated with celebrations of victory in the Second World War have made Russians unwilling to confront these dirty secrets of their past, Walker claims. This, he suggests, goes a long way towards explaining Russia’s behaviour today. Walker rounds off his book with descriptions of his visits to war-torn Ukraine and of his interviews with rebel soldiers and leaders. Essentially, he says, Russians are suffering from a ‘long hangover’ from the collapse of the Soviet Union. Putin’s efforts to unite the nation by celebrating victory in 1945 is making it harder for the country to get back on its feet by perpetuating this hangover. Simply put, the idea is that if you celebrate 1945 then you start thinking that maybe Stalin wasn’t so bad after all, and next, before you know it, you’re starting a war in Ukraine.

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Continue reading Book review: The Long Hangover

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What’s the objective, and how does this help achieve it?

Today the Canadian government announced that it had added Ukraine to the Automatic Firearms Country Control List, which is a list of countries deemed to be permitted destinations for the export of firearms. This does not necessarily mean that Canadian companies will immediately start exporting weapons to Ukraine, but it does mean that they are now allowed to do so.

Ukraine, of course, is hardly short of firearms. It’s hard to see what difference a few from Canada will make. Nevertheless, one can see this as another victory for Canada’s Ukrainian lobby, coming just a day after the House of Commons Standing Committee on National Defence issued a report on Ukraine which included a recommendation to add Ukraine to this list. The report drew heavily on statements by Ukrainian officials, the president of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress, Paul Grod, and some other Canadian-Ukrainian activitists such as Taras Kuzio and Lubomyr Luciuk. The fact that the government acted on one of its recommendations within a day must be something of a record for speed.

There’s a lot wrong with the standing committee’s report, which you can read here. I won’t bother listing all its problems, but they include a poor understanding of the origins and nature of the war in Donbass, and an extremely one-sided perspective on all issues relating to Ukraine and Russia. But that’s not what I want to talk about here. What concerns me is the detachment of the policy recommendations from any clear objective, and the lack of evidence to support the recommendations.

When presenting any policy proposals, what one needs to do is first explain one’s objective, and second explain how the recommended policies will help one to achieve the objective. If the objective isn’t credible, and if the policies won’t help one achieve it, then the recommendations are worthless. In this case, the defence committee report recommends, among other things, that:

  • Canada expand its training and support of the Ukrainian army.
  • Increase its commitment to the OCSE monitoring mission in Donbass.
  • Advocate for a ‘peacekeeping mission in Ukraine that respects its territorial integrity’.
  • ‘Provide lethal weapons to Ukraine … provided that Ukraine demonstrate that it is actively working to eliminate corruption.’
  • Add Ukraine to the Automatic Firearms Country Control List.
  • Encourage cooperation between Ukrainian and Canadian defence industries.
  • Assign members of the Canadian Armed Forces to Ukraine’s cyber-security operations.
  • Expand sanctions against Russia.

My question to the committee is this: ‘What is this all meant to achieve?’ The report doesn’t actually lay out any objectives, so we can’t tell whether these recommendations are relevant or how one could measure their success. This is a pretty serious failing.

About the only place where there is a hint of the committee’s idea of what it hopes for is a section entitled ‘Conflict Resolution and Prevention in Ukraine’. In that section, we are told that , ‘Canada and the international community are trying to find peaceful solutions to the conflict in Ukraine’ So, the committee wants to promote peace in Ukraine. But what does the committee think a peaceful solution would look like? That’s not clear, as the report doesn’t say. But it does cite Paul Grod as follows:

Mr. Grod noted that, as long as Russia is not prepared to ‘have a resolution and stop the ongoing conflict and military aggression,’ Minsk II will never be implemented. In his opinion, Minsk II is ‘stale-dated’ and the ‘simple way’ to ‘bring peace and stability’ to Ukraine is ‘to force Russia’s hand to remove their military, their equipment, and their financing of the separatists’ in the Donbas region; Russia must agree ‘to stop the war in Ukraine.’

In other words, the objective is the total surrender of rebel Donbass, and the chosen means of achieving this end is ‘to force Russia’s hand’ – i.e. coercion.

This is dumb. It’s dumb because it is totally unachievable. The rebels in Donbass aren’t just going to give up. The report says that the rebels have 35,000 men under arms. I have never heard of an undefeated army of that size simply deciding one day that they’ve had enough and will lay down their arms to their enemies and put themselves at their mercy. It won’t happen. The report seems to think that everything depends on Russia, and that if Russia can simply be coerced sufficiently it will abandon Donbass. It won’t. Russia won’t stop supporting the rebels without receiving something extremely tangible in return. Complete Ukrainian victory of the sort apparently favoured by the defence committee is a fantasy.

The report says that, ‘Witnesses told the Committee that Canada and the international community must stand together in trying to find a peaceful solution to the armed conflict in Ukraine.’ So, if a peaceful solution can’t take the form of the total surrender of Donbass, what could it take the form of? The only two alternatives are: a) a negotiated peace settlement, and b) a complete ceasefire, perhaps enforced by peacekeepers, dividing the sides and in effect freezing the conflict. Will the report’s recommendations help achieve either of those?

The answer is no. A negotiated settlement would have to take the form of something like Minsk II, but unconditional support of Ukraine of the sort proposed by the committee doesn’t provide any incentives to Kiev to change its current policy of refusing to enact the Minsk provisions. The report’s recommendations merely encourage Kiev to carry on its current course. The recommendations therefore undermine peace, not promote it.

As for the frozen conflict option, the Canadian recommendations are equally irrelevant. The report spends a lot of time talking about a potential peacekeeping operation. This is absurd. There is currently no peace to keep. In any event, the committee totally supports the Kiev government’s line on what a peacekeeping operation should consist of – forces deployed throughout the rebel republics, including on the border with Russia. Neither the rebels nor Russia will ever agree to this. It’s pointless proposing it. Insisting on this formula serves only to rule out the possibility of an alternative which could actually stop the killing – a peacekeeping force along the front lines. By rejecting this latter formula, the Canadian committee is once again working against peace, not in favour of it.

What we see here, therefore, is a stubborn refusal to choose achievable objectives combined with recommendations which are in any case detached from any objective, and without the provision of any evidence that the recommendations can help produce successful results. The committee, for instance, favours increased sanctions versus Russia without providing any data which shows that sanctions have in any way altered Russian behaviour in a desired way, justifying the decision solely on the basis of unbacked assertions by certain interested parties. This is not ‘evidence-based policy.’

There was a time when Canada was seen as a peacekeeper and an ‘honest broker’ in international relations. Alas, those days are in the past.

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.

Update on Lugansk

So, the leader of the Lugansk People’s Republic (LPR), Igor Plotnitsky, has resigned and the LPR has a new president – the former minister of state security Leonid Pasechnik. Plotnitsky, meanwhile, has been appointed the LPR’s representative in negotiations over implementation of the Minsk Agreements, which he signed, and which are meant to provide a blueprint for an eventual peace settlement in Ukraine. What does this all mean?

The Russian online newspaper Vzgliad has a few ideas. According to an article by Pyotr Akopov, stories of treason in high places are false, and the LPR is secure. Akopov adds that, ‘merger with the DPR [Donetsk People’s Republic] is currently impossible’ and could happen only in the event of a renewal of large-scale military operations. Plotnitsky’s involvement with the Minsk negotiations doesn’t mean very much, as the negotiations are not going anywhere. And finally, recent events won’t change the relationship between the Russian Federation and the LPR. In short, after a brief flurry of excitement, everything will return to the way it was a week ago. It was all much ado about nothing.

Akopov comments also that the events in the LPR show that ‘Russia supports and helps the republics [LPR and DPR] in all sorts of ways, but in no way leads them.’ To make his point, Akopov quotes a response Vladimir Putin gave to a questioner who suggested that Moscow is in total charge of the rebel Ukrainian republics: ‘You’ve got it wrong … these guys are really stubborn … they’re difficult.’ The Vzgliad article concludes that ‘If Moscow was in charge of Lugansk, it wouldn’t have let the conflict among the republic’s leaders develop into open confrontation.’ Having said as much myself in a recent post, I concur.

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.

First arrest in Russia scandal – for being an ‘unregistered agent’ of Ukraine!

The rumours, it appears, were true. Robert Mueller, the special counsel appointed to investigate alleged Russian interference in the US election, has brought charges against former Trump adviser Paul Manafort for conspiracy to launder money.

It seems bad for Trump, you might think. But, stop! Money laundering has nothing to do with Russian interference. Moreover, who was Manafort working for when he committed his alleged crime? Not Russia. No. Ukraine! For sure, it wasn’t the current Ukrainian government, but that of the supposed (but in reality not at all) ‘pro-Russian’ president, Viktor Yanukovich. But still, there’s no Russian connection here.

Maybe, the conspiracy theorists might claim, but Manafort will now surely spill the beans on Trump, the Russians, and all their his evil doings. As the BBC says, ‘Mr Manafort will be under growing pressure to co-operate with the Mueller investigation. If he offers up useful information about his time during the campaign, this could be just the first domino to fall.’ But if Manafort actually had any relevant information about Russian interference in the election, he’d have offered it up by now. In the past weeks, reports have suggested that Mueller was pressuring Manafort to tell all in return for some deal, but Manafort told Mueller that he couldn’t cut a deal because he didn’t know anything.

Having not seen the charge sheet, I can’t say for sure where the evidence to indict Manafort came from, but it seems likely to have been the data about payments from Yanukovich to Manafort provided by the current Ukrainian authorities during the US presidential campaign, data which led to Manafort resignation from Trump’s team at that time. In short, it derived from Ukrainian interference in the US election.

Russia-wise, it appears that so far Mueller has drawn a blank. All he’s managed to come up with is charging someone for being an ‘unregistered agent’ of the Ukrainian government. Perhaps everybody has been chasing the wrong target.

UPDATE: You can read the charge sheet against Manafort and co-defendant Richard Gates here. I found paragraph 19 interesting. It says:

MANAFORT and GATES engaged in a multi-million dollar lobbying campaign in the United States at the direction of Yanukovich, the Party of Regions, and the Government and Ukraine. MANAFORT and GATES did so without registering and providing the disclosures required by law.

It’s an interesting outcome from an investigation set up to examine Russian interference in US politics.

Impossible victory

It’s always a pleasure to read the words of former NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, so imagine my joy at breakfast this morning when I opened up the Globe and Mail and found his latest article, entitled “Peace in Ukraine requires a carrot and stick approach.” You get a sense of where it’s going from the very first sentence, which says: “I just returned from the contact line in Ukraine’s conflict with Russia, which separates free Ukraine from the Russian-occupied parts of the Donbass region.” I suspect that a lot of Irrussianality readers would have stopped right there and turned instead to the sports section, but it’s my job to read this guff, so I ploughed on. And what great reading it made!

It’s pretty clear how Rasmussen sees the war in Donbass: Ukraine v. Russia, not Ukrainians fighting Ukrainians. “Nearly three million Ukrainians in the Donbass region live in fear,” writes our friend Fogh. True enough, perhaps, but I don’t think that for most of them its Russian artillery that they’re afraid of. But Rasmussen doesn’t let such little details bother him. Apart from spelling Donbass with two s’s, what follows in his article could pretty much have been written by the president of “free” Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, as if Rasmussen had just jotted down some Kiev briefing notes and recycled them for the Canadian press.

The core of the article is Rasmussen’s proposals for a “political solution” to the war. This involves “providing defensive equipment to the Ukrainian soldiers,” and “deploying a robust United Nations peacekeeping force to the Donbass region.” The former should include “night-vision goggles, signal-jamming equipment and radar to detect enemy firing positions.” Quite why this is purely “defensive” military equipment, Rasmussen doesn’t explain. It can just as easily be used for offensive purposes. As for his peacekeeping proposal, it fits exactly with what Kiev has been suggesting – not a mere protection force for OSCE monitors, as Russia has proposed, and not a larger force to separate the sides and patrol the area between them, but a mission which “stretches all the way to the Ukraine-Russia border to avoid turning the contact line into a de facto new border,” and which should also “protect the population and the infrastructure.” In short, it would be a UN occupation force, a bit like the one NATO sent to Kosovo in 1999. We all know how that ended up. In essence, this is a proposal for the Donbass rebels’ surrender. It’s also contrary to the Minsk Agreements, which stipulate that Ukraine should regain control of its border only after it has granted special status to Donbass and carried out local elections.

But good old Anders has some carrots to offer as well – “full sanctions relief”, when and if “Russia delivers on the withdrawal of troops [who these are he doesn’t say] and the restoration of Ukraine’s sovereignty … when all of Russia’s obligations are met.” No mention here of Ukraine’s obligations under Minsk, you will note. It’s not much of a carrot. “Give in to all our demands and then we’ll be nice to you,” is what it amounts to.

For that reason, Rasmussen’s proposal doesn’t have a chance of succeeding. When a war reaches stalemate, you can’t get peace by demanding that one side makes all the concessions. It won’t agree to it, and because the war is stalemated, you can’t force it to do so. In such a situation, the only way forward is something which takes both sides interests into consideration. Rasmussen seems utterly uninterested in that.

So what’s the alternative?

Continue reading Impossible victory