Tag Archives: Ukraine

Book review: Ukraine in the Crossfire

Who’s to blame for the war in Ukraine? The great majority of Western politicians and security experts have no doubt. It’s Russia. The war in Donbass is not a civil war, but ‘Russian aggression’. If enough pressure can just be exerted on Moscow to get it to change its behaviour, the violence would stop, Donbass would rejoin Ukraine, and the country could march happily towards its inevitable future as a prosperous, free, and democratic member of the community of European nations.

A minority of commentators has a different point of view. One of them is Dutch journalist Chris Kaspar de Ploeg. In his new book Ukraine in the Crossfire, de Ploeg does not seek to whitewash either Russia or deposed Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich, and admits that Russia has provided significant support to the Donbass rebels. Nevertheless, he points the finger of blame for Ukraine’s problems quite firmly at the United States of America. ‘The war in Ukraine serves to keep the EU [European Union] in line with the wider US agenda,’ he argues.

deploeg

Continue reading Book review: Ukraine in the Crossfire

Gotta give those weapons to someone

Back in 2013, the CIA carried out an internal study to examine the history of the agency’s covert support for foreign rebel movements. It determined that covert intervention in foreign conflicts rarely if ever produced positive results. In fact, it could produce only one example of ‘success’ – the support given to the mujahideen in Afghanistan, although even that didn’t look too good given what happened later.

Despite having this information at hand, the Obama administration went ahead and decided to support the rebels in Syria. The results are now in: total, abject failure. Remember the 70,000 ‘moderate rebels’, which British Prime Minister David Cameron said existed in Syria? Where are they now? Nowhere to be seen. Yesterday, the last outpost of the alleged ‘moderates’, Idlib, fell to the armed group Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which is often described as an ‘affiliate’ of Al-Qaeda. As Gareth Porter reports in The American Conservative, the main consequence of the US decision to arm the Syrian ‘moderates’ has been to funnel thousands of weapons into the hands of Al-Qaeda. Meanwhile, far from being overthrown, the government of Bashar al-Assad is rapidly increasing its control over the central and eastern parts of Syria, pushing deep into ISIS-held territory. American policy is in tatters.

Donald Trump’s decision last week to stop arming the Syrian rebels is, therefore, a welcome recognition of reality. The question which now arises is how far reality has managed to intrude into the thinking of the American security community. Is this just an admission of defeat in this particular instance, or is a different view of the world now beginning to make itself felt on US policy more generally?

Many non-interventionists supported Trump in last year’s presidential election because they hoped that he might make the second option a possibility. So far they have been disappointed, and sadly the evidence suggests that the decision on Syria represents a tactical retreat not a strategic rethink. A large segment of the American foreign policy community continues to think that every internal conflict everywhere in the world is somehow its business, obliging it to pick one side or the other as its ally and to support it by sending it weapons.

So it was that less than a week after the US said it would no longer supply arms to the Syrians, the new US ‘special representative for Ukraine’, Kurt Volker, said that the American government was reviewing whether to send weapons to Ukraine. American foreign policy thinking is clearly in a state of confusion. On the one hand, a US official said that the decision on Syria was ‘a signal to Putin that the administration wants to improve ties to Russia.’ On the other hand, the same administration is considering a policy designed precisely to damage ties. It’s hard to make sense of it all.

Giving some details of what he had in mind, Volker said: ‘defensive weapons, ones that would allow Ukraine to defend itself, and to take out tanks for example.’ I’m guessing that would mean anti-tank weapons, like the TOW missiles which used to be supplied to the ‘moderate rebels’ in Syria. After all, you can’t just keep them sitting in storage boxes. If you’re not sending them to Syria, you gotta send them somewhere else. Right?

 

Little Russia

‘New Russia is dead! Long live Little Russia!’ Aleksandr Zakharchenko, leader of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), announced today the formation of a new state, Malorossiia, ‘Little Russia’ (the name by which Ukraine was known in the time of the Russian Empire). According to the rebel leader’s plan, Malorossiia will replace Ukraine, whose capital will move from Kiev to Donetsk. Ukraine will keep its current borders, but change its name, and be reformed into a federation, whose regions will have broad autonomy. At least, that is the idea.

It’s an odd one. Zakharchenko simply isn’t in a position to determine the future constitution of Ukraine, let alone its name, and I can’t in a hundred years imagine most Ukrainians accepting his proposal (while one can say for certain that a large chunk of them never would). Also, it appears that Zakharchenko forgot to consult his fellow rebels in the Lugansk People’s Republic (LPR) before announcing his new project. The chair of the LPR parliament Vladimir Degtiarenko said that the LPR did not send any delegates to the conference at which the project was announced, and in any case didn’t support the idea. Malorussia, it seems, is dead at birth. The story rather undermines the idea that everything that happens in the DPR is dictated by puppet masters in the Kremlin. One would imagine that if the Kremlin was behind this, it would have bothered to check with the LPR first. So either this wasn’t the puppet masters’ idea, or they are bizarrely incompetent. It seems more likely that this was Zakharchenko’s own initiative, a conclusion which has left pundits scratching their heads and wondering what on earth he’s up to.

Over the past three years, Zakharchenko has seemingly adopted just about every conceivable position about the DPR’s future. Sometimes he’s in favour of joining the Russian Federation; other times he’s for the DPR’s independence; sometimes he says that he is committed to the Minsk process, and thus reintegration into Ukraine; other times he says that Minsk is dead and reintegration is no longer possible. Reading between the lines, it’s fairly clear that what he really wants to do is join Russia, but now he’s dropping that, and returning to the idea of rejoining Ukraine, but with a twist, namely that it won’t be Ukraine anymore.

A possible explanation for all this tacking hither and thither is that it represents Zakharchenko’s efforts to satisfy the various constituencies on which he depends. On the one hand, there’s his supporters in Donetsk, who for the most part, one imagines, have long since burnt their bridge with Ukraine and have no intention of going back. On the other hand, there’s the people paying the bills in Moscow, who, one suspects, would be only too happy to see the DPR vanish back into Ukraine if only some way could be found of doing so without losing face (which, of course, there isn’t, short of the extremely unlikely event of the total collapse of Ukraine and the DPR army marching into Kiev). Perhaps somebody in Moscow has made it clear to Zakharchenko that he should forget any ideas of unification with Russia, and so he’s come up with some hairbrained scheme of how he can imagine being back in one country with his former Ukrainian compatriots. It gets Moscow off his back while making it clear to the guys in Donetsk that he’s not planning to sell them down the river. This sort of makes some sense, but I can see this irritating Zakharchenko’s Muscovite sponsors as well as his LPR allies. And it has already gotten France pressuring the Kremlin to get Zakharchenko to back off, with the French Foreign Ministry declaring that the scheme is contrary to the Minsk agreements. I’m not sure that I see how the Malorossiia project is going to make the DPR’s life any easier.

Writing in Lenta.ru, journalist Igor Karmazin provides another explanation: the move is possibly connected to plans being discussed by the Ukrainian parliament to change the status of the war in Donbass. If the plans go ahead, the war will cease to be called an ‘anti-terrorist operation’. Instead, the Ukrainian government will recognize the DPR and LPR as being occupied by the Russian Army, and that Ukraine is thus in effect at war with Russia. Responsibility for the war zone will pass from the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) to the Army. From the DPR’s point of view, this is seen as proof that the Ukrainian government has finally turned its back on Minsk, and that a return to full-scale war is inevitable. Given that, goes the logic, it makes sense for the DPR to prepare for war, including establishing a plan for its broader political objectives. Perhaps, suggests Karmazin, Zakharchenko also believes that the Ukranian ‘regime’ is bound to collapse, and is preparing the ground to seize power himself throughout the country.  Maybe that’s right, but again, it’s just speculation.

In a way, none of this matters. Little Russia isn’t going to happen. But in another way, it does matter, as it sheds some light into what Ukraine’s rebels want, as well as the nature of their relationship with both Ukraine and Russia. The problem is interpreting that light. What does it all mean? Damned if I know. It’s all rather puzzling. I await enlightenment.

Democratic progress?

One of the subjects discussed at our roundtable in Toronto last week was the prospects for the development of liberal democracy in Ukraine. Peter Solomon, who wrote a book about the criminal justice system in the Soviet Union, expressed some very cautious optimism that judicial reform in Ukraine could make positive progress. Ivan Katchanovski, by contrast, was far more sceptical and suggested that Ukraine had become less not more democratic since the Maidan revolution.

Those who support the idea that Ukraine is moving towards becoming a Western-style democracy have been rejoicing this week over the news that the Netherlands has ratified Ukraine’s EU Association Agreement. ‘Ukraine won. Putin lost’, crowed RFE/RL’s Brian Whitmore, adding that ‘Ukraine is finally getting what it has been fighting for.’

By contrast, anti-Maidan commentators have picked up today on the news that the city of Kiev has renamed one of the city’s major thoroughfares from General Vatutin Prospect to Roman Shukhevich Prospect. And for sure, replacing the man who led the forces which liberated Kiev from the Nazis with somebody who collaborated with them seems an odd way of marking the transition towards liberal democracy (though I am sure that Vatutin himself was no liberal democrat).

Missed in all the fuss about these stories, however, were a couple more which are quite revealing about the state of democracy in Ukraine.

First, the Kyiv Post reported today that, ‘The municipal council of Kyiv has approved the granting of combatant status for volunteer battalion fighters’ after ‘The war veterans burst into the assembly hall demanding the legal status on June 1.’ According to the report:

Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko proposed changes before consideration of final passage during the next council meeting, but protesters forced the council to take a final vote. Several persons in camouflage entered the hall, initiating a scuffle with the assembly’s security, and succeeding in persuading the city council to vote on the issue.

Indeed, I am sure that they ‘succeeded in persuading the city council’ very easily. I have no opinion on whether members of the volunteer battalions should have official veteran status, but it’s an odd sort of democratic procedure when it’s undertaken in the presence of camouflaged soldiers who have burst into the council chamber. Also rather odd is the Kyiv Post’s insouciance about this act of blatant intimidation. One would surely expect supporters of Western liberal and democrat norms not to be too keen on this sort of thing.

It isn’t unique, however.  Earlier this week, the founder of the nationalist Azov Battalion, Andrei Biletsky, led a group of supporters in an action to occupy the Lvov regional council building. Their aim was to force the council to send a request to President Poroshenko to amnesty members of volunteer battalions accused of crimes in the war in Donbass. Afterwards Biletsky declared ‘that, on the basis of the example of the storm of the Lvov regional council, activists would storm councils in other regions to demand an amnesty for those who had fought in the Anti-Terrorist Operation’. ‘We want to create pressure, to show that every region supports these things’, said Biletsky, ‘We will come to other regional councils, and will continue to do this.’

Again, it has to be said that this is an odd sort of democracy.

In our panel, I avoided taking any firm position on the subject of Ukraine’s future development. On the whole, I’m trying to avoid making predictions, as I have got too many wrong in the past. But these stories make me lean a bit more to the sceptics’ point of view. How things turn out in the future, I cannot tell, but as far as the present is concerned they don’t look too healthy.

Electrical separation

On Monday, the Lugansk Electricity Union, which provides electricity in Lugansk province in Ukraine, announced that it would no longer supply rebel-held areas of the province with power. According to the Union’s director, Vladimir Gritsai, this follows the receipt of instructions from Ukraine’s Fuel and Energy Minister Igor Nasalik.

The decision is just the latest step in the Ukrainian government’s efforts to blockade the rebel Donetsk and Lugansk Peoples’ Republics (DPR & LPR). In March this year, the government confirmed that it would no longer purchase coal from the DPR and LPR. And last week, sources suggested that Ukraine might also stop buying coal from Russia, to prevent the Russians from exporting to Ukraine supplies which they had purchased from the DPR and LPR.

The strategy, in so far as there is one, appears to be to try to impoverish the rebel republics and undermine their leaderships’ legitimacy in the eyes of their people, hopefully thereby at some point persuading the people to abandon their rebellion. At the same time, the blockade imposes costs upon the Russian Federation, which might serve to persuade it to stop supporting the DPR and LPR.

If this is a conscious strategy rather than merely the product of domestic political pressures, most notably from the far right and the volunteer battalions, it isn’t very well thought out. For sure, the blockade is imposing costs on Russia, but it seems that those are costs which Russia is quite willing to bear. The Russian government announced today that if Ukraine did stop supplying electricity to Lugansk, it would step in to provide it instead.  The effect of Ukraine’s action will thus not be to assist the re-integration of the DPR and LPR into Ukraine, but rather to accelerate the process of their separation from Ukraine and their integration with Russia. As Russian spokesman Dmitry Peskov put it, Ukraine’s action ‘is one more step on Ukraine’s path of tearing the territories away from itself.’

From the start of the crisis in Ukraine, the Russian government has shown a consistent preference for a solution which sees Donbass remain within Ukraine but with some form of autonomy. Russian leaders have repeatedly made it clear that this is only possible if the Ukrainian government negotiates a settlement directly with the rebels. Russian policy has in part been oriented towards coercing Ukraine into accepting this reality. This policy has, however, failed. Ukraine still refuses absolutely to speak to the DPR and LPR. This has placed Russia in an awkward position. It cannot abandon the rebels, both because that would be unacceptable to domestic public opinion and because it would mean losing whatever strategic leverage it still has over Ukraine. But supporting the DPR and LPR is expensive. The optimal policy thus involves supporting the republics, but keeping the costs low.

Because of this, it initially suited Russia to keep the rebels integrated as much as possible with Ukraine – if Ukraine could pay for pensions etc, and support the rebel economies by trading with them, Russia’s costs would be lower. The Ukrainian blockade has rendered this policy impractical. Russia has to step in to provide what the Ukrainians won’t. At the same time, it has become necessary to maximize the rebels’ own sources of income. This in turn has meant that it has become necessary to further sever economic ties with Ukraine by placing major industrial enterprises under so-called ‘external management’, stripping the Ukrainian owners’ of their management rights and forcing the enterprises to pay taxes to the DPR and LPR.

In this way, bit by bit, as a result of the Ukrainian blockade and the Russian and rebel responses to it, the DPR and LPR are turning into de-facto independent states without any substantial economic ties to Ukraine. The longer this goes on and the deeper the process the goes, the harder it will be to reverse it. As the process continues, a side effect will be that the state institutions of the DPR and LPR will become stronger. In an interview yesterday with Izvestiia, DPR leader Aleksandr Zakharchenko commented that,

There are natural problems in constructing a new state. In first place is the problem of personnel. And it’s not just a matter of many specialists having left the republic when combat operations were going on. Turning a region of a unitary state into an independent country requires a large number of new specialists. We are doing everything we can to prepare new personnel. We are opening educational institutions, and new faculties within existing institutions in those subjects which are needed in the management of the state and the national economy. And so we are resolving this problem, albeit not quickly.

As time goes on, Ukraine and everybody else will find that they are no longer dealing with a rebellion but with fully fledged state formations. This will inevitably change the political dynamic as the new states will demand recognition as such, if not de jure then at least de facto. As Zakharchenko told Izvestiia, when asked if he would accept reintegration in Ukraine on the basis of federalization:

That train has already left the station. We were willing to speak to Kiev about federalization in spring 2014 until Kiev began to shoot us from tanks, guns, and combat aircraft. Now we are willing to engage in dialogue with Ukraine only on the basis of equal rights, as an independent state. … Perhaps, as an independent state we will be willing to negotiate with Ukraine about co-existence on a confederal basis. But this will only be possible once not only those in power in Kiev, but the entire ruling elite, is changed.

In January 2015, I remarked that:

Kiev is now pinning its hopes on turning its own territory into a zone of good government and prosperity while blockading the DPR and LPR so that they face economic and social collapse, thereby in the long term convincing the population of Eastern Ukraine to rejoin the rest of the country. Should the leaders of the DPR and LPR succeed in consolidating their republics, this strategy will fail.

Two years later, we can conclude that this strategy has indeed failed. Indeed, it has been thoroughly counterproductive, as the policy of blockade has actually encouraged and enabled the process of state consolidation. It has also given the rebels’ Russian backers no option other than to promote total independence. Things are now so far gone that there is almost certainly no way back. The DPR and LPR will complete the process of state formation and their economies will become fully integrated with that of the Russian Federation, while both entities will remain officially unrecognized. This isn’t what anybody wants, and it is a thoroughly unsatisfactory outcome. But I no longer see how it can be avoided. Rather than pursuing futile dreams of re-integration with Ukraine via the Minsk process, it would make more sense, therefore, for all concerned to recognize this reality (even if only in private) and to focus instead on how to bring about a lasting ceasefire, so that both Ukraine and its lost territories can go their separate ways in peace.

Self-contradiction

From a report in The Globe and Mail, 26 February 2017:

… in Sartana … Three residents who spoke to The Globe and Mail, including two whose homes were damaged by separatist rockets, said they heard sustained artillery and tank fire from the Ukrainian side before the separatists returned fire. … There have been similar reports from Avdiivka … several media reports suggested it was the Ukrainian side that first moved troops into the no-man’s land between the two front lines, drawing the ferocious response from the separatists.

Editorial in The Globe and Mail, 28 February 2017:

Less than a week after a supposedly friendly phone call between the two [Putin and Trump] at the end of January, the pro-Russian forces in the southeast of Ukraine – the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic – tripled their warfare against Ukrainian government forces. … the pro-Russian rebels of the Donbass region – or their masters in Moscow – seem to have calculated well. The rebels have now increased their pressure on a Ukrainian port, Mariupol, on the Black Sea, which is vitally important to Ukraine. … Mr Trump needs to respond in a sensible and forceful manner.

Explain that if you can.

Infamous Putinphile

My old University of Toronto friend Bill Szuch, who produces the UkeTube youtube channel, has published a rather fun interview with Taras Kuzio denouncing the ‘Russophiles’ and ‘Putinphiles’ in Canadian universities. The roll of honour is: myself (apparently I am ‘infamous’, which pleases me no end); Ivan Katchanovski (author of a well-known study of the shootings on Maidan); University of Ottawa’s Chair of Ukrainian Studies Dominique Arel (who I am sure will be most surprised to be listed among the Putinphiles); Mikhail Molchanov of St Thomas’ University; and Carleton University’s Piotr Diutkewicz. John-Paul Himka also gets a mention.

One thing which puzzles me is why Kuzio thinks that I am ‘anti-American’. What he gets right, however, is that there are quite a few Canadian academics – including several whom Kuzio didn’t mention – who don’t follow the normal Kremlin-bashing line and who have put forward alternative perspectives about the war in Ukraine as well as other issues (see, for instance chapters in this and this). In fact, it is interesting that scholarly analysis of these issues tends to be much more sober and balanced than what you read in the press.

Anyway, watch and enjoy below.