Is Luhansk about to be annexed by Russia?

[quote float=”right”]the city is full of Russian soldiers[/quote]

In a series of Tweets today, German MP and member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) Marieluise Beck described the Russian occupation in Luhansk as she saw it – and the ominous signs of its potential annexation.

Occupation & infrastructure

In the messages, Beck says that the city is “full of Russian soldiers,” and that an engineering brigade has already begun the reconstruction of infrastructure, including electrical lines, to Russia.

Columns of Russian armor and thousands of troops have been seen in the region in recent days.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has already called for discussions on the region’s “statehood” and Russian-installed officials have announced bilateral negotiations with Moscow  “at the highest level” over the supply of Russian gas to occupied territory via a Luhansk pipeline. Such negotiations bypassing Kyiv would confer de facto recognition of southern Luhansk as being independent from Ukraine.

“In Moscow we have discussed the issues concerning the heating season and gas. We have a separate pipeline and we were guaranteed to receive gas supplies. The pipeline comes into the Lugansk region and covers the Donetsk region. We are the only two regions that in general do not rely on Ukraine,” Leonid Baranov, the Donetsk Republic’s so-called “Minister of State Security” told Russian media.

Russian passports

Mirroring Crimea, Beck also confirms that Russian passports are already being handed out in the city, and that Russian soldiers are distributing to locals cash sums of Russian currency.

After the Russian-Georgian ceasefire, Russian-backed police in South Ossetia forced ethnic Georgians to accept Russian passports or leave, amounting to ethnic cleansing.

“Russian authorities have launched the full-scale issuing of Russian passports in Donetsk and Luhansk. It is being done to give Russia an excuse to bring in the Russian Army under the pretext of protecting Russian citizens,” said Yuriy Serhiyev, Ambassador of Ukraine to the United Nations yesterday.

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Ominous similarities

Since signing a ceasefire agreement with Georgia two weeks ago, the Russian military and its local allies have carved a substantial buffer zone around the tiny enclave. To consolidate its latest conquests, Moscow has shipped in what Georgian officials describe as “industrial batches” of passports.

“The Russians are telling everyone in the town they must take a Russian passport,” said Akhalgori shopowner Guram Chkhvidze. “One came to me and explained that if I did not take it, my safety could not be certain. I was scared, so I am leaving.”

The Telegraph, August 30, 2008

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Linguistic and religious Russification

Russification has also begun in the school system, with Beck also informing that lessons are already being conducted with Russian school textbooks; the curriculum change to that of the Russian Federation was verified by the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission. In Crimea, the Ukrainian language was summarily banned from schools by Russia.

“The Ukrainian church and the mosque in Luhansk have been closed. The Ukrainian-Orthodox priests had to flee,” read another tweet by the German MP observer.

Sectarian violence and religious persecution has been widespread during the conflict, with pro-Russian separatists considering Christian denominations such as the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyivan Patriarchate, Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Roman Catholics, and Protestants, as anti-Russian and see them as obstacles in the path of the separatist goal of uniting the region with Russia.

Previously during the occupation and annexation of Crimea by Russian forces, Ukrainian Catholics were forced to flee the peninsula under threat of arrest and property seizures. “All my parishioners are patriotic Ukrainians who love their Crimean homeland. But Russia is now seeking to drive us out,” Father Milchakovskyi told the Catholic News Service in April. The Ukrainian Catholic Church was banned under the Moscow regime from 1946 to 1989, resulting in many clergymen arrested and Church property appropriated by the state and Russian Church.

New Russia or Novorossiya, Russia’s name for the occupied parcels of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, has already embedded in its constitution that it will act as a monolingual Russian state, with the Russian Orthodox Church and Russian Orthodoxy acting as the official state religion.

What next?

This story will develop in the coming days with a Tuesday press conference already scheduled by Russian-installed officials. The ongoing ceasefire may just be the calm needed to begin the process of solidifying Russian hegemony in the region, as occurred in Georgia. It remains to be see what form of annexation will take place: be it the formal annexation of Luhansk and neighboring Donetsk, facilitating their recognition as vassal states in the model of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, or unofficial recognition as Russia maintains with Transnistria.

NHL stars support the war against Ukraine

A number of Russian NHL stars have quickly taken to backing their homeland in the war against Ukraine, with multiple MVP Alexander Ovechkin making the most recent headlines. The negative attention was significant enough that Hall of Famer Slava Fetisov expressed concern over how Ovechkin will continue to be received by fans in North America.

On Instagram, Ovechkin posted a controversial picture of himself holding a card reading “save children from fascism.” Given the context of evoking ‘fascism’ in Russian rhetoric over the past several months, the Washington Capitals winger is effectively saying Russia must save children from Ukraine and Ukrainians, or possibly even Americans, as many Russians blame the U.S. for importing ‘fascism’ into Ukraine.

Affixed to the picture is also the note: “Our grandparents have seen the horrors of fascism. We will not allow it in our time!!” – clearly throwing his weight behind Russia’s military invasion aimed at preventing Ukrainian democracy and independence from taking root.

Acclaimed historian Timothy Snyder best explains the politics of the term:

Thus began the politics of fascism and anti-fascism, where Moscow was the defender of all that was good, and its critics were fascists. This very effective pose, of course, did not preclude an actual Soviet alliance with the actual Nazis in 1939. Given today’s return of Russian propaganda to anti-fascism, this is an important point to remember: The whole grand moral Manichaeism was meant to serve the state, and as such did not limit it in any way. The embrace of anti-fascism as a rhetorical strategy is quite different from opposing actual fascists.

“Anti-fascist” slogans (and even organizations) are also typically espoused as a smokescreen by Russia’s far-right, a political sphere that ironically contains a plethora of racist, neo-Nazi and indeed fascist figures. A leading figure of this core, Russian ideologue Alexander Dugin, recently called for the outright genocide of Ukrainians, calling for the country to be “cleansed” of the Ukrainian “race of bastards.”

Thankfully, despite Ovechkin’s concerns, hockey for Donetsk area children in liberated territory couldn’t look brighter at the moment. In Druzhkivka, hundreds of players and their families turned out to start the season in the city’s new arena days after his comments.

Ovechkin’s show of support for Putin’s war wasn’t isolated to just the aforementioned photo, as he posted another photo two days later with fellow Russian NHL star Evgeni Malkin, brandishing a pair of Vladimir Putin iPhone cases, “a souvenir from our president.”

For his part, Malkin makes his position directly known in a number of recent uploads. A month ago, he posted photos of himself posing with both a figure of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, and an airbrushed portrait of Putin on the hood of a BMW.

More direct though is this group shot which features Malkin (right) and another NHL player, Sergei Gonchar (left) wearing Putin fan shirts in a group photo.

The shirts aren’t simply innocuous kitsch, but rather an advertisement for Crimea’s occupation. The slogan beneath the venerating screen prints of macho-Putin, which is also coyly repeated by Malkin in the photo description (with a smiley face to boot), says “polite people” – a term popularized among Russian nationalists to describe the military personnel who participated in the annexation of Crimea. To people like Malkin and Gonchar, Crimea was a ‘polite’ annexation.

Colorado Avalanche goaltender Semyon Varlamov has also posted a similar picture on his Instagram account, wearing Putin t-shirt which says “Crimea is Ours,” as reported by Sports Illustrated.

Varlamov later deleted this photo after it caught attention
Varlamov later deleted this photo after it caught attention

All of this should come as no surprise given these players’ track records. Following Russia’s IIHF World Championship win this summer, Putin joined in on the celebrations, partying with the players. The championship, which was hosted in Belarus, was wrought with controversy with many fans speculating that the officiating was fixed and rightfully protesting the overlooked actions of the Russian head coach who used a hidden radio device to circumvent his standing suspension.

Ovechkin and Putin

Days later the stars, Ovechkin and Malkin, were seen again being more than chummy with the Russian leader at a state ceremony held for the roster. While they may have just been overjoyed since Putin had just bought the players brand new Mercedes sports cars to celebrate the win, Ovechkin’s personal relationship with the benevolent dictator goes further back, evening having his personal home phone number (the two call each other frequently).

Detroit star Pavel Datsyuk caused a furor earlier in the year for his comments on Russia’s repressive anti-gay laws. When asked for his position he responded with: “I’m an orthodox and that says it all.” As Sports Illustrated pointed out, the Russian orthodox church’s position on the subject is straightforward: “This is a very dangerous apocalyptic symptom, and we must do everything in our powers to ensure that sin is never sanctioned in Russia by state law, because that would mean that the nation has embarked on a path of self-destruction.” The Russian church’s position on Ukraine is, of course, not the least bit more encouraging.

But just how strong are the convictions of these players in their support for Russia? One thing’s for sure, they very much enjoy their American salaries and won’t be too thrilled if Russia continues to clamp down on American imports.