Tag Archives: Ukraine

IS Russia About to Invade Ukraine?

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.

The Foolishness of Linguistic Homogenization

In a new article for RT (which you can read here) I discuss Latvian and Ukrainian efforts to assimilate Russian speakers and to turn their countries into linguistically homogenized states. I note that many of the most successful states in the world have more than one official language, and that ‘that having a multiplicity of languages within a state is not a hindrance to being rich, stable, democratic, or anything else you might consider desirable. ‘

I conclude:

Successful multilingual nations such as Switzerland and Canada have learnt not only to live with diversity but to embrace and celebrate it. In the process they have turned it into a strength. Supporters of Ukraine’s Maidan revolution often say that they want Ukraine to be a “normal country.” They should think about what that means.

Happy reading!

Ukraine as a model of what not to do.

In my latest piece for RT, which you can read here, I discuss the decision of Ukrainian president Vladimir Zelensky to shut down three opposition TV stations. I point out that Western pundits had said that post-Maidan Ukraine would be a model of liberal democracy that would serve as an example for Russia. The reality, I argue, is the direct opposite.

Fascist Blindness

Yale historian Timothy Snyder was out banging the fascist drum again this weekend in The New York Times. In the aftermath of the Washington riot by America’s version of the old Russian Black Hundreds, Snyder warns of Donald Trump’s ‘pre-fascism’. This builds on his previous work, which portrays Trump as tool of the not pre- but very genuinely ‘fascist’ Valdimir Putin.

As well as his job at Yale, Snyder has a position as a Permanent Fellow at the Vienna-based Institut fur die Wissenschaften vom Menschen (IWM – Institute for Human Sciences, in English). In November he gave an interview to the IWM for its online publication Eurozine, in which he again evoked the spectre of American fascism, saying that, ‘I think it’s impossible to talk sensibly about Mr. Trump without invoking the history of fascism.’

Snyder, therefore, has no problem in seeing fascists. Except, of course, in Ukraine, where fascists are an invention of Russian propaganda designed to delegitimize the glorious and democratic ‘Revolution of Dignity’. Which makes the following rather interesting.

One of the IWM’s ‘focal points’ is what it calls ‘Ukraine in European Dialogue’, as part of which it has an annual competition to appoint Ukraine in European Dialogue Fellows. Today the IWM issued the following Tweet:

The jury of the Ukraine in European Dialogue fellowship has been requested by the IWM Collegium to reconsider the award of a fellowship to Olena Semenyaka. We take the information recently brought to our attention very seriously and will issue an official statement tomorrow.

And then four hours later:

Following a decision by the program jury, the IWM revokes Semenyaka’s fellowship with immediate effect. We sincerely apologize for the inexcusable misjudgment, especially to the Ukrainian research community, & will take further steps to prevent a similar incident in the future

So, who is this Olena Semenyaka? Well, she is allegedly the one on the left in this picture holding the Nazi flag and doing the Hitler salute.

If you want to know more about Ms Semenyaka, I would recommend an article published in October by George Washington University’s Illiberalism Studies Program, entitled ‘Olena Semenyaka: The “First Lady” of Ukrainian Nationalism’. It’s about the first thing which pops up if you Google her name, which makes the IWM’s decision to appoint her as a fellow all the more bizarre. Did they not check her out first? Or did they just not care until somebody found out?

According to the GWU article, ‘Olena Semenyaka is the female figurehead of the Azov movement’. A former disciple of Alexander Dugin, she broke ties with him following the Maidan revolution and joined the Right Sector before switching to Azov. She has since become a prominent proponent of the Intermarium – a sort of Eastern European Union stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea, rather along the lines of the old Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. To this end, she has established links with far right groups across Europe.

Philosophically, Semenyaka draws on the likes of Ernst Junger, Martin Heidegger, Carl Schmitt, Alain de Benoist, ‘collaborationist writer, Pierre Drieu de la Rochelle’, Julius Evola, and Charles Maurras. On top of this, she’s a big fan of Black Metal music, which she calls an ‘Aryan Luciferianism’. She is ‘close to the neo-pagans and Esoteric Nazis of Wotan Jugend, led by Russian Alexey Levkin, vocalist in the Militant Black Metal band M8L8TH,’ and played ‘an active role in the organization of the “Asgardsrei” Black Metal festival and the “Pact of Steel” Conference.’

If we looking for a fascist, who’s going to be first on our list? Donald Trump or Olena Semenyaka? The answer is pretty damn obvious. So why are people so quick to shout ‘fascist’ in the case of Trump but completely blind to it when it comes to Ukraine?

Take another example – Ottawa-based Twitter commentator Michael McKay, who touts a PhD from the London School of Economics and declares himself a ‘veteran of Ukraine democratic and civil society renaissance.’ Over the past few days, Mr McKay has been keen to portray the riot in Washington as the work of the Kremlin. ‘Not defeating Russia’s invasion of Crimea and Donbas led to Russia falsifying the U.S. election and putting Putin puppet Trump in the White House. Not removing Trump as Ukrainians removed Yanukovych led to the insurrection and attack on the Capitol,’ McKay Tweeted over the weekend.

To this McKay added evidence that Russia was behind the ‘insurrection’ in Washington. Posting pictures of Ukrainian journalist Serhiy Dubynin first with soldiers during the battle for Donetsk airport in 2014 and then with protestors at the Capitol last week, Mckay commented:

A tie-in between Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the insurrection in the United States. Serhiy Dybynyn is an infowarrior for Inter TV, nominally owned by fugitive oligarch Firtash but beneficially owned by Putin pal Medvedchuk. Donetsk airport was destroyed by RU forces.

Suspicious, huh? Except, as Bryan MacDonald has pointed out, Dubynin is actually ‘a Ukraine supporting Neo-Nazi who is wanted on criminal charges in the “pro-Russian” Donbas region of East Ukraine.’

Outside of a particular time period (1920s to 1940s), I don’t think that the term ‘fascism’ has a lot of meaning. But I find it odd that those who do like to use the word somehow fail to see it when it’s staring them in the face. Odd, but not inexplicable. It’s probably no coincidence that the IWM somehow failed to investigate Ms Semenyaka’s political beliefs, or that Dr McKay misidentified Mr Dubynin. The term ‘fascist’ is far too easily abused. It’s out there, but not where many people would like you to think it is. Caveat lector.

Proof of collusion at last!

Despite the secondary roles played some bit part actors in the Russiagate drama, the central figure in allegations that Donald Trump colluded with the Russian government to be elected as president of the United States has always been Trumps’ onetime campaign manager Paul Manafort. The recent US Senate report on Russian ‘interference’ in the 2016 presidential election thus started off its analysis with a long exposé of Manafort’s comings and goings.

Simply put, the thesis is as follows: while working in Ukraine as an advisor to ‘pro-Russian’ Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich, Manafort was in effect working on behalf of the Russian state via ‘pro-Russian’ Ukrainian oligarchs as well as Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska (a man with ‘close ties’ to the Kremlin). Also suspicious was Manafort’s close relationship with one Konstantin Kilimnik, whom the US Senate claims is a Russia intelligence agent. All these connections meant that while in Ukraine, Manafort was helping the Russian Federation spread its malign influence. On returning to the USA and joining the Trump campaign, he then continued to fulfill the same role.

The fundamental flaw in this thesis has always been the well-known fact that while advising Yanukovich, Manafort took anything but a ‘pro-Russian’ position, but instead pressed him to sign an association agreement with the European Union (EU). Since gaining independence, Ukraine had avoided being sucked either into the Western or the Russian camp. But the rise of two competing geopolitical projects – the EU and the Russia-backed Eurasian Union – was making this stance increasingly impossible, and Ukraine was being put in a position where it would be forced to choose. This was because the two Unions are incompatible – one can’t be in two customs unions simultaneously, when they levy different tariffs and have different rules. Association with the EU meant an end to the prospect of Ukraine joining the Eurasian Union. It was therefore a goal which was entirely incompatible with Russian interests, which required that Ukraine turn instead towards Eurasia.

Manafort’s position on this matter therefore worked against Russia. Even The Guardian journalist Luke Harding had to concede this in his book Collusion, citing a former Ukrainian official Oleg Voloshin that, ‘Manafort was an advocate for US interests. So much so that the joke inside [Yanunkovich’s] Party of Regions was that he actually worked for the USA.’

If anyone had any doubts about this, they can now put them aside. On Monday, the news agency BNE Intellinews announced that it had received a leak of hundreds of Kilimnik’s emails detailing his relationship with Manafort and Yanukovich. The story they tell is not at all what the US Senate and other proponents of the Trump-Russia collusion fantasy would have you believe. As BNE reports:

Today the Yanukovych narrative is that he was a stool pigeon for Russian President Vladimir Putin from the start, but after winning the presidency he actually worked very hard to take Ukraine into the European family. As bne IntelliNews  has already reported, Manafort’s flight records also show how he crisscrossed Europe in an effort to build support in Brussels for Yanukovych in the run up to the EU Vilnius summit. …

On March 1, his first foreign trip as newly minted president was to the EU capital of Brussels. … The leaked emails show that Manafort influenced Yanukovych’s decision to visit Brussels as first stop, working in concert with his assistant Konstantin Kilimnik … In a memorandum entitled ‘Purpose of President Yanukovych Trip to Brussels,’ Manafort argued that the decision to visit Brussels first would underscore Yanukovych’s mission to “bring European values to Ukraine,” and kick start negotiations on the Association Agreement.

The memorandum on the Brussels visit was the first of many from Manafort and Kilimnik to Yanukovych, in which they pushed Yanukovych to signal a clear pro-EU line and to carry out reforms to back this up. …

To handle Yanukovych’s off-message antics, Manafort and Kilimnik created a back channel to Yanukovych for Western politicians – in particular those known to appreciate Ukraine’s geopolitical significance vis-à-vis Russia. In Europe, these were Sweden’s then foreign minister Carl Bildt, Poland’s then foreign minister Radosław Sikorski and European Commissioner for Enlargement Stefan Fule, and in the US, Vice President Joe Biden.

“We need to launch a ‘Friends of Ukraine’ programme to help us use informal channels in talks on the free trade zone and modernisation of the gas transport system,” Manafort and Kilimnik wrote to Yanukovych in September 2010. “Carl Bildt is the foundation of this informal group and has sufficient weight with his colleagues in questions connected to Ukraine and the Eastern Partnership. (…) but he needs to be able to say that he has a direct channel to the President, and he knows that President Yanukovych remains committed to European integration.”

Beyond this, the emails show that Manafort and Kilimnik also tried hard to arrange a meeting between Yanukovich and US President Barack Obama, and urged Yanukovich to show leniency to former Prime Minister Yuliia Timoshenko (who was imprisoned for fraud).

It is noticeable that the members of the ‘back channel’ Manafort and Kilimnik created to lobby on behalf of Ukraine in the EU included some of the most notably Russophobic European politicians of the time, such as Carl Bildt and Radek Sikorski. Moreover, nowhere in any of what they did can you find anything that could remotely be described as ‘pro-Russian’. Indeed, the opposite is true. As previously noted, Ukraine’s bid for an EU agreement directly challenged a key Russian interest – the expansion of the Eurasian Union to include Ukraine. Manafort and Kilimnik were therefore very much working against Russia, not for it.

The idea, therefore, that Paul Manafort was an agent of influence for the Russian government flies against everything we know about what he actually did. As for Kilimnik, maybe he is a Russian intelligence agent – I’m not in a position to say. But if he is, he’s a very weird one, who spent years actively pushing the Ukrainian government to pursue a policy which directly contradicted Russian interests.

None of this, needless to say, appears in the US Senate report. Instead, the report chooses to focus on the apparently shocking revelation that Manafort shared Trump campaign polling data with Kilimnik, as if this sharing of private information was in some ways a massive threat to national security and proof that Manafort was working for the Russians. The fact that both Manafort and Kilimnik spent years doing their damnedest to undermine Russia is simply ignored. Go figure!

Sick trash

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.

Unilateral peace

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:

palestine2

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.

 

 

 

Trump is killing Ukrainians!

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:

  • ‘three firefighters (men, 34, 32, and 36 years old) injured by shelling in the Trudivski area of Donetsk city’s Petrovskyi district (non-governmentcontrolled, 15km south-west of Donetsk city centre) on 11 September.’
  • ‘On 4 October, the SMM saw a man (aged 37) in Staromykhailivka (non-governmentcontrolled, 15km west of Donetsk) with a small injury to his face who told the SMM that on the afternoon of 3 October, while he was in the backyard of his house at 9 Haharina Street (about 2.5km from the contact line) in Staromykhailivka, he heard shooting and started running towards his house. According to him, as he was entering the house, he heard a loud explosion, felt heat on his face, and realized he was injured.’
  • ‘The SMM followed up on reports of a man injured on 25 October due to an explosion at his house at 39 Komsomolska Street in Mineralne (non-government-controlled, 10km north-east of Donetsk), about 2.5km from the contact line. … The man told the SMM that, on the evening of 25 October, as he was about to exit his house, he heard a loud explosion, which injured him.’

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.’

WTF?!

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:

  • ‘On 9 November, at the Donetsk Regional Trauma Hospital, the SMM saw a man (40 years old) with bandages on his left leg and right upper arm. He told the Mission that on the morning of 1 November he had been outside his house at Pryvokzalna Street in Spartak (non-government controlled, 9km north of Donetsk) when he heard the sound of two explosions and fell to the ground.’

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.

Steinmeier mania

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.