Peace at Last in Ukraine? Analyzing Russian Goals

As we await the form of the local elections in the areas of the Donbas occupied by the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (the DNR and LNR), there is much speculation in the Western media whether the Minsk agreement will be upheld. Much revolves around Russia’s intentions, as well as the attitude of the militant separatist leaders who wish to use the elections to remove their fiefdoms from Ukraine.

Over the past days according to the reports of the OSCE and other sources, overt conflict in the separatist regions seems to have ended and some of the separatist leaders have either been removed or else appear to have migrated—at least for now—to the Russian Federation. Vladimir Putin is reluctant to remain involved in a war that is going nowhere, but costing Russia sorely in terms of commitment of weaponry and manpower, and even more in terms of alienation from Europe and the United States.

Some observers have noted a sustained buildup at Tartus, Russia’s military base in Syria in support of the forces of President Bashar Al-Assad. Predictably, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov denies any increase in Russian forces and maintains that it is little changed from earlier.

Nonetheless, that Russia has increased its commitment to Syria while reducing that to the territories of ‘Novorossiya’ in the Donbas is evident. It is unclear whether in the event of a Ukrainian attempt to regain its former territories there would be much opposition in the Kremlin. Rather, as almost occurred in the summer of 2014, Russia might prefer to abandon the separatist regimes and leaders to their fate.

How can such a move be equated with the apparent commitment to Ukrainian separatists and the construction of ‘Novorossiya’?

Some reasons can readily be dismissed, such as the decisive impact of Western sanctions. Sanctions have had some effects, but there is no indication that they have had a serious impact on Putin’s popularity or Russia’s ability to withstand prolonged recession.

Instead, more important are the following. First, the annexation of Crimea has proven extremely costly, and has become more a symbolic triumph than an act of wise statesmanship. True, many Crimeans may have supported it. But providing services to Crimea is difficult, and the peninsula, other than providing bases for the Russian Black Sea Fleet, has little to offer.

Second, the militants, unsurprisingly given their dearth of ideas and commitments, have failed to attract support of he populations in the areas they control. A case in point is Aleksandr Zaharchenko, the leader of the DNR, who continues to make bellicose statements as the peace process makes advances. Though there are many important distinctions between the DNR and LNR, both require conflict to make advances rather than periods of stability. Both require the continued investment of Russian troops, equipment, and personnel that Moscow is no longer prepared to offer given the remote chance of long-term success.

Third, and related, ethnic Russians in Ukraine and Russian-speaking Ukrainians outside the small separatist enclave have no interest either in joining Russia or supporting a prospective full-scale Russian invasion. Even Sergey Aksyonov, the appointed leader of Crimea, would make little headway in a free election, as was evident in the last pre-annexation elections when his party achieved less than 5% of the vote. When pro-Russians failed in their attempted takeover of cities like Kharkiv in the late spring of 2014, it was evident that Vladimir Putin had misinterpreted the signs of support in Ukraine.

In short, opposition to Euromaidan did not signify pro-Russian sentiment or separatism. Most opponents of the protests in Ukraine would, given the choice, put up with the new government, particularly if it secured economic stability, just as they endured the turbulent years of the Yushchenko presidency, or for that matter the corruption of the Yanukovych years. Insofar as the concept of ‘Novorossiya’ existed, it was limited to a small coterie of gunmen and Russian idealists who for a time had the backing of the Kremlin.

Fourth, Russia has moved on. One of the few identifying aspects of the Putin leadership, as with his personal image, is the need for instant triumphs without sustained commitment, images over concrete achievements. That requires foreign policy maneuvers that might enhance the prestige of the regime and allow it to maintain profitable contacts with the Western world. Rhetoric aside—and there has been much of it—Moscow prefers to keep the lines open to the markets of the West while adopting the role of a major player in international affairs.

As far as Syria is concerned, perhaps the logic is that by maintaining Assad in power, Russia can persuade the West that it is better to keep it as a partner rather than an adversary. Just as in 2001, Moscow and Washington can join forces against terrorists, in this case the Islamic State. That is not to say that such a policy will receive much sympathy in Washington, which perceives such intervention as exacerbating the conflict.

Another theory is that by intervening in Syria, Russia will bring the West to the negotiating table, with an agreement that if the Russians keep out of that conflict, they might be given a free hand in Ukraine. But as argued above, that is not what they are seeking at present. Rather the goal is to be recognized as a significant power—in short, it is alienation that rankles rather than sanctions. Russia would like to return to the G8 and believes that there is a possibility of doing so.

Where does that leave Ukraine? Over 8,000 have died in the Donbas conflict to date and over a million residents have left the region. Analysts in the West continue to debate whether there is a civil war or a Russian war in Ukraine. The correct answer is probably a little of both. But the fact remains that the rebels would not survive for long without Russian support. Once they lose it, and given the Kremlin’s current acceptance that an invasion would be highly unpopular both in the area and at home, the likelihood is that DNR and LNR will once more come under Ukrainian control.

None of the above should lead to a conclusion that the Russian government recognizes the territorial integrity of Ukraine. Rather it prefers to wield influence from afar, to ensure that in terms of security interests, both Ukraine and Belarus are in the Russian sphere. A new accommodation with the West would then, in theory lead to the return of economic growth, decreased commitment of military personnel and equipment, and assurance that there should be no further buildup or expansion of NATO.

There is also herein an assumption that there must be some logic to Russia’s latest policy moves, an apparent commitment to the peace process of Minsk as well as to the government of Syria. In reality such moves may be no more than feelers to elicit the reaction of Western powers. Still, Russia is clearly dissatisfied with the status quo, in Ukraine and elsewhere. And that is bad news for the leaders of the DNR and LNR.

What to do with the Donbas: Phase 3

On July 16, Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko steered the draft law to provide more autonomy for separatist-occupied areas of the Donbas through Parliament and to the Constitutional Court for approval. Though the motion passed convincingly (288 votes in favor, 57 against)—it was opposed only by the Radicals and Samopomich faction, and even supported by the Opposition Party—it represents only the first in a complex process focused on article 11 of the Minsk-2 Agreement signed earlier this year, which will change the status of the Donbas.

Providing that the court approves the law, it will be returned to Parliament where it requires the support of over 300 deputies in order to become valid. US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland, who was coincidentally in Ukraine during the deliberations, supports its acceptance as do the leaders of Germany, France, and other countries of the EU. In fact Ukraine is under intense pressure from its Western allies to accept the law in order to put the principles of Minsk-2 into operation.

There are, however, a number of disturbing issues raised by the passage of the draft law.

First of all, it contravenes the existing 1996 Constitution, which does not permit outsiders to dictate changes to the Ukrainian government. Specifically, it is stated in Article 157 that:

The Constitution of Ukraine shall not be amended, if the amendments foresee the abolition or restriction of human and citizens’ rights and freedoms, or if they are oriented toward the liquidation of the independence or violation of the territorial indivisibility of Ukraine.

In December 1991, when a Ukrainian referendum backed the August 24 Declaration of Independence all the countries currently pressuring Ukraine to the constitutional amendment recognized the country within its existing borders. The Constitution further strengthened the notion that these borders were inviolable.

Second, Minsk-2, like its predecessor Minsk-1, gave a voice to the leaders of the breakaway “Donetsk People’s Republic” and “Luhansk People’s Republic.” It was signed by the leaders of these two regions, instantly enhancing their credibility when hitherto the Western world had considered them little more than advance posts of a predatory Russia. The rebels now demand that these changes become enshrined officially in an amended Constitution of Ukraine.

Whether the DNR and LNR have any real legitimacy is a moot point. There appears to be as much in-fighting among their leaders as there are barbs directed at the government in Kyiv. Clearly the settlements within are disaffected, having been bombarded by the Ukrainian army over the past year and used as a refuge by the renegade leaders. The reality is that we do not really know how popular they are, and how much support they could attract were a free and fair election possible.

Third, the goals of Russia are uncertain and fluctuating. Speculation about the eleventh point in the Minsk-2 agreement, which is already nebulous, suggests that Vladimir Putin’s personal advisor Vladislav Surkov, a Russian-Chechen businessman who was First Deputy Chairman of the Russian Presidential Administration for twelve years (ending 2011), inserted that particular clause, undoubtedly with the president’s approval. It stipulates that Ukraine should be decentralized “(taking into account peculiarities of particular districts of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts, agreed with representatives of these districts).

That Russia supports more autonomy for the Donbas is evident, but what are its long-term goals? The answer would seem that these goals have receded from the once triumphant (though fundamentally and historically flawed) concept of Novorossiya to one of holding on to one’s gains and propping up, more or less, a defunct gangster regime that will ultimately succumb to pressure from the Ukrainian army or collapse from within thanks to feuds and in-fighting.

The limitations of Russian ambitions are illustrated by a reluctance to escalate the conflict further and to engage in any form of physical occupation. Though propaganda against the “neo-Nazi” government in Kyiv has been relentless—and boosted by the rash actions of the Right Sector in Mukachevo, whether or not these were based on a moral crusade against corruption and smuggling—Putin himself has been strangely subdued, even extending some feelers to the West for cooperation over the crisis in Syria, while protesting the notion of an international commission to investigate the shooting of a Malaysian airliner over Donetsk region just over a year ago.

Lamentably, through the blundering of both sides, the Donbas is the real victim of this protracted conflict. Economically it is a wasteland that will take years to rebuild, if indeed it can be reconstructed. It would require enormous investment, an outlay that at present is as remote from the Ukrainian reality as it is possible to be. Its more enterprising souls have fled the scene. Thousands are dead, victims of shelling that does not discriminate between one side or another. Those surviving live amid intermittent warfare, dreading the coming winter. It may well be a frozen conflict, but that conflict is for a land that one one really wants.

Thus what the Europeans and United States are saying to Ukraine is: you must retain these devastated areas, feed them, provide them with resources, but without taking full authority over them or at least, not in the immediate future. In short, the fulfillment of this part of Minsk-2 would weaken fundamentally the Ukrainian state established in 1991. Today no one outside the country is supporting the notion of a centralized Ukraine under the rule of president or parliament. One would have to conclude that the recognition of 1991 has been abruptly violated by both friends and enemies of the country.

There are further implications for Ukraine here. The return of Crimea is not even part of Minsk-2. Further, those placing pressure on Poroshenko are not exerting similar pressure on the separatist governments, which are largely and openly ignoring the agreement, after some token gestures to comply. Most of its stipulations, like Ukraine’s control over its original eastern border by the end of the year, are unenforceable. Ukraine can survive without Donbas and (especially) without Crimea, but only if they are severed permanently. At present it cannot regain Crimea but it cannot discard the occupied Donbas, which it has treated as alien territory for some time.

Other questions will emerge, most notably the determination of where the border of the two oblasts should lie and whether Russia will permit the disarming and defeat of the two separatist regimes by ceasing the constant flow of advanced weaponry over the border and removing its “volunteer” soldiers from the war zone. For Putin it is a drain of resources; one suspects that for most of the Russian troops fighting in Ukraine, it is an unpopular war. The messianic phase is over but the end goal is unclear. The only certainty is that there are no winners in this conflict.


The peace agreement reached after 16 hours of talks in Minsk between the French and German leaders, Vladimir Putin, and Petro Poroshenko represents the second attempt to stop the fighting in the Donbas. Quickly, analysts assailed it or offered faint praise and even Angel Merkel, Chancellor of Germany, the leader of the initiative, would say only that it offers a “glimmer of hope.”

The first point to be noted is that Minsk-2 does not supersede Minsk-1, which remains in effect though neither side has followed its mandates very closely. Before offering an assessment, one should examine briefly its contents.

Minsk-2 agreed to a ceasefire by midnight on February 14 and the removal of heavy weapons from the conflict zone within sixteen days, with an exchange of POWs over the following three weeks. There have been cynical comments in the Western media as to how an immediate ceasefire could take two days, but in fact the original text does not contain the word “immediate,” it states “not slowly.”

Ukraine is to retain control over the separatist regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, but must grant them more autonomy, and by the end of 2015, the country is to restore its control over the border with Russia.

Concerning the first point, the time lag is dangerous, because it allows both sides to consolidate their positions and in the separatists’ case to try to capture the strategic town of Debaltseve, which constitutes a Ukrainian salient in rebel-held territory. Debaltseve is on the main highway M-04 between Donetsk and Luhansk, but more importantly it is a rail junction. Its capture would allow the rebels to transport coal from the mines to consumers.

The logistics of monitoring the agreement have been left to the OSCE, which lacks the numbers to do so efficiently at present. Moreover, over the past year the OSCE has had considerable difficulty in accessing areas held by the rebels. Since Minsk-1 was so flagrantly ignored, one cannot assume that the same fate will not befall Minsk-2, particularly if the separatists believe that they can strengthen their position.

Neither Ukraine nor the DNR/LNR emerge as winners from the agreement. Ukraine has effectively conceded some sovereignty over the eastern regions, and the subject of Crimea is excluded. Ukraine has also agreed to lift restrictions imposed on these areas, which on paper at least can now receive goods from Ukraine and restore regular trading practices.

For President Poroshenko, the difficult task now arises of getting the constitutional changes through a parliament that is much more radicalized in the absence of its former Regions and Communist delegates. The deal moreover implicitly recognizes the DNR and LNR, habitually referred to by the Ukrainian government as “terrorist” regimes. The Ukrainian president increasingly cuts an isolated figure, forced to take a moderate line in order that an agreement could be reached, traveling frequently to European capitals in search of support, and distancing himself from what might be termed the Euromaidan factions in Kyiv that would prefer a more confrontational approach.

The conflict, which has taken thousands of lives over the past months, and has escalated sharply over the winter, has never been confined to Kyiv and Donbas. Many Western analysts believe that Vladimir Putin is entirely to blame for its longevity and intensification, both by providing advanced lethal weaponry to the separatists and for encouraging “volunteers”—his term—to join in the fight against the Ukrainian ATO.

Putin in turn claims heavy US involvement both in Euromaidan and the ATO operation. Western analysts in contrast often chide Barack Obama for his reluctance to confirm the US Congress’ decision to send lethal defensive weapons to the Ukrainians. And US Senator John McCain constitutes his own personal war cabinet, threatening to send weapons, with or without the consent of his president.

The arguments in favor of providing lethal weapons to Ukraine seem dubious. What weapons and how many? Will advisors and technicians also be sent to assist Ukrainian forces in using them? What response would there be to further Russian buildup and escalation to what will be perceived as NATO’s move into Ukraine? Logically there would be little to dissuade Moscow from endorsing much heavier troop movements over the border.

The Ukrainian Army has not elicited confidence among the citizens it purports to defend, particularly not from those in the Donbas subject to regular shelling from both sides in the shambles that used to be their hometowns. The coal-mining areas were grim places at the best of times, but now they have become a devastated war zone. The officers are still transplants of the former Soviet army, many are corrupt, and perceive the war as a way to make profits.

Poroshenko thus relies heavily on volunteer battalions whose loyalty to the government is shaky at best. Some speak of another Euromaidan to deal with the government once the conflict in the east is over.

Both Ukraine and Russia need a respite, mainly to restore their economies. In this respect, Minsk-2 constitutes a respite. And Ukraine’s position was improved by a $17.5 billion loan from the IMF, which covers approximately half of its current debts, but tranches of that loan will be forthcoming only under certain conditions, namely stability, reforms, and stringent economic policies, and above all a reduction—only the most naïve would demand “the end of”—corruption.

None of this is to say that the deal should be belittled or ridiculed. Merkel and Hollande did their best. Several months ago, I suggested that Ukraine might cut its losses, abandon the Donbas and Crimea, providing that the rump state remaining could apply to join NATO and be slowly integrated into European structures. That remains, I still believe, one alternative, but it would be small consolation to those seeking to retain the integrity of the 1991 state and its borders, which Russia recognized not once, but at least three times in various treaties (1990, 1994, and 1997).

It would moreover leave the Donbas in the hands of the DNR and LNR, both of which are led by Russian security officials and freebooters, gangsters and militant locals. Some of the first group took part in earlier separatist movements, including in Transnistria in the early 1990s. They have few moral scruples and no recognition for an independent Ukrainian state. There is no benefit to Ukraine, short or long term, in dealing with the DNR and LNR, but Poroshenko was obliged to agree to their inclusion in the agreement.

Putin’s Russia has consistently violated Ukrainian borders, just as it has done with borders of other states of the former Soviet Union. In this respect, we should lay blame on the Kremlin. On the other hand, the problems of the Donbas precede Putin, and they have been exacerbated by the war. Its residents oppose a full-scale Russian invasion; but they are equally angry with the government in Kyiv—a very different issue from whether they would wish to leave Ukraine given the choice.

Ukraine above all needs a backup plan if Minsk-2 fails. It must use the armistice wisely and above all consider some serious questions. Can it retake the Donbas without foreign assistance? Can it afford to live without the Donbas and Crimea? Would its membership of NATO be guaranteed if it is forced to lose these regions for the immediate future?

If the answers to these questions are no, yes, and yes, then a fourth question, EU membership, might also be placed on the table once extensive and deep reforms are clearly under way. Ukraine, lamentably, needs to resolve not one problem but three: the conflict in the east, relations with Russia, and its failing economy. It is highly doubtful that it can address all three simultaneously.

Originally published on Ukraine Analysis


The “Snipers’ Massacre” in Kyiv

On October 17, at a symposium on “Negotiating Borders” organized by the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies at the University of Alberta, Ivan Katchanovski, an Ottawa-based scholar, presented a paper on “The ‘Snipers’ Massacre’ on the Maidan in Ukraine.” He argued that leaders of the Maidan gained power as a result of a massacre organized by their own supporters, using as evidence video footage, TV and Internet broadcasting, and radio intercepts, as well as bullet holes, in trees and other places.

The paper was received rather coldly. Indeed Bohdan Harasymiw, one of the organizers of the conference, ignoring the usual politeness one might expect would be accorded to a guest speaker, derided the paper as having neither theory nor analysis, while another participant from the host institution, Taras Kuzio, dismissed Katchanovski personally as an anti-Ukrainian, noting that his opinions mirrored those of Vladimir Putin and Russian propaganda organs.

On the other hand, after the appearance of this paper on a Facebook site, Volodymyr Ishchenko, Deputy Director of the Society for Center Research (Kyiv) who offers analysis on Ukrainian politics from a leftist perspective, described it as an important study, commenting: “This is the most documented and coherent interpretation of Feb 20 events I’ve seen so far…. And, of course, if it was proven that the incumbent government came to power in [sic!] the result of a huge bloody provocation, it must have political consequences.”

one notes some oddities about this paper

A reading of this 29-page paper would therefore seem warranted. As preliminary comments, one notes some oddities about this paper. On three occasions the author refers to it as an “academic” study. It is not. It is an unpublished research paper that has not yet been peer reviewed. That is evident from its layout, which is a chaotic listing of facts, one after the other, often in a very confusing manner. An editor would have asked the author to highlight the important facts and say why they are significant.

An editor would also have suggested the removal of passages that are completely off topic, such as the author’s allusion (p. 28) to Nazi, OUN, and UPA-led crimes in the Second World War, which are compared directly, without the addition of a single date, to deaths in Odesa and the Donbas in 2014.

The conclusion is a veritable jumble of illogical reasoning

Moreover, the paper appears politically driven, i.e. it sets out to prove that the change of regime in Kyiv last spring was illegitimate and that a democratically elected president (however corrupt) was forced out of power by a rightist-orchestrated coup. The conclusion is a veritable jumble of illogical reasoning and statements that do not seem warranted by the findings, which are themselves confusing, as will be noted below. Here is one example:

The seemingly irrational mass shooting and killing of protesters and the police on February 20 [2014] appear to be rational from the self-interest based perspectives of rational choice and Weberian theories of instrumentally rational action.

What these Weberian theories are, the reader is left to ponder.

Katchanovski declares that the massacre of protesters and police “represented a violent overthrow of the government in Ukraine and a major human rights crime” (p.29). After denouncing the “violent overthrow” as the root cause of all that followed, he makes another remarkable statement. While the evidence shows that both the Maidan opposition and the “far right” were clearly carrying out the killing of the 100-plus innocents in the square: “the involvement of the special police units in killings of some of the protesters cannot be entirely ruled out based on publicly available evidence” (p. 29) [my italics]. So were they involved or not?

The meat of the paper is a long chronicle of who was shooting from where and at whom. But it is very difficult to follow and the blurry photographs included do not help very much. At one point the author notes that the pro-Maidan snipers were holed up in Hotel Ukraina. On page 7, for example (lines 1-3) we read that, based on video evidence, two protesters were shot from this direction, one with 7.62mm bullet, and one wounded “in his backside.” Further, on page 25 (lines 1-2), there is a firm statement that “The types of guns and ammunition used and the direction and type of the entry wound among both protesters and policemen also confirm that the shooters came from the Maidan side” (p. 25).

Yet on page 26, the author cites a parliamentary commission report that the police on the Maidan were shot by firearms and ammunition that protesters stole from the police after raids on various arsenals in Western Ukraine. So how is it possible to determine the perpetrators if both had access to the same types of weapons? They could indeed have been members of the Right Sector. They could also have been police agents. We have no names or identities.

On page 19, one reads about gunfire from the Kozatsky Hotel and from the Trade Union building, as well as from the Main Post Office (p20). On this same page, the author cites a statement by an “unidentified intruder” to Internal Troops that people were “aiming a rocket propelled grenade launcher into the Hotel Ukraina from the 6th floor of the Trade Union building.” Assuming one wants to accept this statement as “evidence,” were they shooting at their own snipers? And hotels are rather large places; it seems unlikely that either side would completely occupy or control a building as large as Hotel Ukraina. The author informs (p. 15) us that ABC News reporters were based here, for example. There are other apparent anomalies. If the massacre and subsequent events constituted a coup by the Right Sector, then why are its supporters not in power today? One recalls their unceremonious eviction from the Hotel Dnipro on April 1, 2014. Can one have a successful coup that does not result in a takeover of power by the perpetrators?

If these events constituted simply a violent overthrow of a democratically elected regime, other things need explaining too: the subsequent holding of presidential and (forthcoming) parliamentary elections; and the explanation of why former President Yanukovych had been preparing for several days (if not weeks) to leave his residence, as evidenced by the fleets of vehicles moving his goods from Mezhyhirya. It was not a sudden departure forced by the threat of his capture. Central Kyiv after all is 12 miles away.

Not all of Dr. Katchanovski’s findings should be dismissed. He has raised some new evidence that suggests new investigations into the sniper massacres are much needed. The official version of events is indeed deeply troublesome and his gathering of new material is commendable. His paper does provide evidence that there were several separate groups of snipers, including anti-government ones.

The problem is that while the paper is not devoid of analysis—Bohdan Harasymiw’s comments were unjustified in this respect—it appears to be based on preconceived conclusions, all heavily weighted against the supporters of Maidan and the current government of Ukraine. In short it reads less like an academic paper and more like a polemic that addresses its findings in an unsatisfactory and unconvincing manner.

Virtually anyone interested in Ukraine with access to the Internet watched live feeds of the unprovoked police violence of November 30 and December 1, 2013, which in the eyes of many Kyiv locals transformed the protests from “Euromaidan” to a “Revolution of Dignity.” As subsequent election results corroborated, peaceful supporters of Euromaidan heavily outnumbered the violent activists of Right Sector and other forces. The protests and the attempt to form a more democratic government based on popular support must be given their due before any analysis of why events turned so violent.

That statement in no way implies that the new government was universally popular, or that Euromaidan was welcomed in all parts of Ukraine. Nor does it suggest that right-wing forces were not growing and problematic.

The author’s depiction of such groups seeking to benefit from the mass protests and use them as a means of taking power, even to the point of killing their own fellow demonstrators on the square, is an important issue. But the paper doesn’t debate this question; it simply assumes it as a given fact, in a conclusion that seems somewhat divorced from the rest of the paper.

It would have been advisable for the author to focus on his findings and offer some preliminary assessments as to what they might mean. If the reader discerns that the apparent purpose of a paper is to discredit and malign the current government, then it ipso facto becomes a political tract (and moreover one that appears to fall closely into line with the RT version of events disseminated in the Russian Federation), which then leads to suspicions about its methodology. A more objective approach is needed. Without it, even the most startling revelations will not receive serious attention.

The Ukrainian Army is unprepared for war

The recent news in Ukraine, from the perspective of the government side, has been very positive. At least sixty settlements have been recaptured from the anti-Kyiv forces led by the Russian officers Vladimir Antyufeyev and Igor Girkin/Strelkov. The terrorists are now confined to two small pockets inside the two regional capitals of Donetsk and Luhansk. They are well provided with weaponsry but desperate for a full-scale Russian invasion to begin.

This picture, however, masks fundamental problems at the upper levels of Ukrainian army. Evidence is emerging of large-scale corruption among generals and lower-ranking officers, particularly in Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense. It is undermining the war effort and lowering the morale of rank-and-file. Many soldiers have come to the conclusion that it would be better to change the leadership in Kyiv before dealing with the separatists in the Donbas.

Command over troops in the Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO) is divided among several sectors, including the ministries of Defense and Internal Affairs, along with some volunteer formations. Minister of Internal Affairs, Arsen Avakov, announced on July 29 that at least 20,000 troops in the Donbas were needed to replace deserters and traitors. Almost 600 troops had been found collaborating with officials of the “Donetsk People’s Republic.” A further 242 people who had been on vacation “for a long time” were also under investigation.

After months of fighting the border with Russia remains open. Anton Herashchenko, an advisor to Avakov, notes that daily hundreds, and sometimes thousands of mercenaries cross from Russia to join the fighting in Ukraine. Some are influenced by Russian state propaganda, but others come as mercenaries. Some Ukrainian soldiers suspect that the border has remained open because some of their own leaders are making profits from the hiring of Russian troops and equipment.

Ukrainian soldier

One soldier (we have withheld his name) complained that ATO generals were ignorant of what is taking place in the war zone. They prefer to sit in hotels well away from the battle front “eating lobster” and cavorting with prostitutes. They remain restricted to the “Soviet mindset.” Leader of the Radical Party Oleh Liashko had visited them and provided cookies, chocolate, food, and sleeping bags, but the commanders had confiscated them and put such goods under lock and key. He quoted a border source that Russia was prepared to pay $100,000 for a truck loaded with weapons to cross and $10,000 for an individual mercenary. These funds fall into the hands of Ukrainian military leaders. The war, in his view, could be ended in a month using two battalions with twenty snipers in each, but people at the top are interested in prolonging it.

Parents of soldiers from Uzhhorod region complain of corrupt and irresponsible military commanders. About 280 soldiers were picked up at Luhansk airport and informed that their destination would be the Moscow-Luhansk highway, a virtual death sentence, since the road is the only remaining link between eastern Ukraine and Russia, and controlled by separatists and Chechens. The troops abandoned their mission; only 25 paratroopers from Zhytomyr were willing to take it on and suffered heavily. The Uzhhorod parents believe their Ukrainian commanders betrayed their whereabouts to the Chechens for cash and took vacations on the proceeds. Captured Chechens have also been suddenly released. The soldiers do not complain about shortages of food and water and are willing to defend Ukraine. But they believe also that the war is being prolonged for profits.

According to Dmytro Tymchuk, coordinator of the group “Information Resistance,” the main problem lies with army generals at ATO headquarters. They are, he reports, pathologically inclined to lies, are afraid to take on the slightest responsibility, unable to make simple decisions, and utterly incompetent. Military commanders of all units are psychologically unprepared for combat. Starting with the war in Crimea (March 2014), examples abound of middle and junior commanders refusing to obey orders or sabotaging them.


Treachery and corruption at the top is rampant. Both Svoboda leader Oleh Tiahnybok and commander of the “Aidar” battalion, Serhii Melnychuk, maintain there are traitors in the central office of the ATO. Tiahnybok has proposed a lie detector test to prevent the delivery of secret information to Moscow, end corruption, and facilitate the delivery of necessary military equipment. A volunteer from the “Wings of the Phoenix” from Mykolaiv region complained that: “The generals have saunas and fitness centers in the rear of ATO Staff. They have no idea what’s going on here, where our guys are dying.”

One soldier bemoaned the fact that in Kyiv the oligarchs have returned to power and “nothing has changed.” The generals do not care about soldiers, they remain in hotels and secure places, and are content to replace dead troops with new recruits. Even Ukrainian Minister of Defense, Valerii Heletei, acknowledged the depths of the problems of the high command, noting that the Ukrainian army has 20-30 generals who are quite adept at preparing battle plans on tablets and on paper. But they have no idea what is happening at the front. In order to understand the situation, he commented, “one should at least go there.”

Ukrainian army


The DNR’s defense leader Strelkov recently imposed martial law in Donetsk. Such options are not open to the Ukrainian side, complained deputy of the Kyiv Council, Ihor Lutsenko. Yet, he believes, its imposition would allow the military to detain suspected separatists. The front abounds in enemy agents and traitors, yet local police forces leave the separatists in peace. Lutsenko maintained that “The main problems with fighting the terrorists are located in the capital, and to overcome them will automatically ensure victory—at least over those enemies who are in our country right now. The ATO must start in Kyiv!”

The government of Ukraine proposes to allot about $1 billion for the ATO, the costs of refugees, and restoring the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk in the future in the 2014 state budget. It has also raised financial assistance to the families of dead servicemen in the ATO zone to around $50,000 per soldier. In reality, however, families do not receive such compensation since the soldiers are blamed for their own deaths—failure to follow instructions, misuse of weapon, improper behavior, etc., as the testimony of their widows reveals.

The failure to deal with fundamental problems of the army is undermining the war effort and alienating the troops conducting the main fighting. Not only does it endanger the future of Ukraine, but also it contributes to volunteer extremist paramilitary groups like the extremist “Azov” battalion taking over the war effort. The victims of high-level corruption in the current Ukrainian army are the rank-and-file troops who are neglected, betrayed, and often abandoned to their fate as “cannon fodder.” This fact is largely concealed in the Ukrainian and Western media amid reports of ATO successes and liberation of eastern towns and villages. But it will affect the future of Ukraine long after the demise of Girkin and the so-called People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk.


David Marples is currently Visiting Professor at the Slavic and Eurasian Research Center, Hokkaido University, Japan. He is Distinguished Professor and Dirctor of the Stasiuk Program for the Study of Contemporary Ukraine at the University of Alberta, Canada.

Myroslava Uniat holds an MA from the University of Alberta, Canada. Her sphere of research was contemporary Ukrainian political folklore. She was born in Kyiv and raised in Chernihiv region of Ukraine.

The aftermath of MH17

The massive outpouring of media commentary and analysis following the tragic loss of lives on the downed Dutch airliner has given much pause for thought. Three items in attracted my attention, one from the perspective of misreading the situation, and the second and third offering informed but questionable statements by experts on Ukraine. They provide an introduction for an analysis of the reaction from the Russian side, which seeks to deflect responsibility for the catastrophe from the Kremlin and even from the anti-Ukrainian forces that currently occupy the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, which, most sources concur, were responsible for the missile that brought down Flight MH-17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur last Thursday.

Writing in the London Daily Mail, a tabloid better known for its gossip columns than reasoned and informative analysis, Peter Hitchens blames the European Union for the current conflict in Ukraine, maintaining that it was the EU’s expansionism that sparked the insurgence:

[The] aggressor was the European Union, which rivals China as the world’s most expansionist power, swallowing countries the way performing seals swallow fish (16 gulped down since 1995)…. Ignoring repeated and increasingly urgent warnings from Moscow, the EU – backed by the USA – sought to bring Ukraine into its orbit. It did so through violence and illegality, an armed mob and the overthrow of an elected president.

Hitchens presumably suffers from a short memory. Had he contemplated the events of six years ago, namely the Russian war with Georgia that resulted in the defection from that country of two states recognized today by less than five countries—Abkhazia and South Ossetia—he might have recalled why the Eastern Partnership Project (initiated by Poland and Sweden) came into being, and why the EU opted to give states in the neighborhood of Russia some political and economic alternatives. It should be added that the EU has offered membership to none of them. Even if it had, most EU states retain considerable independence, as demonstrated by the recent examples of France selling two Mistral-class warships to Russia and German reluctance to impose more severe sanctions on Moscow. Blaming the EU for the war given its demonstrable lack of participation and restrained sanctions makes no sense.

A more serious analysis of the current troubles is offered by Ivan Katchanovski, writing for The Washington Post blog, who concludes that: “The second-largest country in Europe is now formally in a state of civil war, since the battle-related casualties exceed 1,000, a mark that political scientists and conflict studies scholars often use to formally classify an armed conflict as a civil war.

This statement requires an explanation of how one defines civil war, other than numerically. Which residents of Ukraine are fighting each other? The war began last March with the Russian invasion of Crimea, the most significant alteration of European boundaries since the Second World War (not 1954, since both Ukraine and Russia were part of a single state). Moreover there was a clear continuation of that war into eastern Ukraine, even including the leaders of the invasion forces, such as Igor Girkin (Strelkov), a resident of Moscow. Notably when the Ukrainian army recaptured the former terrorist stronghold of Sloviansk on July 5, the fighting stopped and people returned to the streets.

What Katchanovski’s polls demonstrate is disaffection with Euromaidan and the government installed in Kyiv earlier this year. No doubt that alienation remains in parts of Donetsk and Luhansk—though less so in any other region other than Crimea. But that is not civil war [see also Adrian Karatnycky’s comment at New Republic]. Yaroslav Tynchenko, deputy director of the National Military-History Museum of Ukraine, points out that these three regions, in addition to Kharkiv and Odesa took exception (during Euromaidan in Kyiv) especially to the appearance of the red-black “Bandera” flag, Dmytro Yarosh, portraits of Stepan Bandera, and the party Svoboda and that they neither knew nor understood the “western Ukrainian culture.” As Tynchenko recalled, this situation had prompted the late Viacheslav Chornovil in the early 1990s to advocate a system of federalization for Ukraine. Clearly Euromaidan always had as many opponents as supporters. But civil war requires more than disagreement. After all, the Ukrainian state is approaching its 23rd anniversary.

On the other hand, to state, as Chrystia Freeland did during her CNN debate with Stephen Cohen that Vladimir Putin could end the war “tomorrow,” also seems far-fetched, though in general her comments were much better informed and credible than those of her interlocutor, Stephen Cohen, who took the Ukrainian government to task for liberating its own territory. In fact, Moscow tried to prevent (unsuccessfully) the Donetsk and Luhansk referendums, and it supported, belatedly, the holding of the Ukrainian presidential election, while the militants in these two cities generally obstructed people from voting. In short, while Russia has armed and trained the insurgents, it has not always controlled them. But the looseness of command can be perceived as one of understanding and trust. The occupants of Donetsk and Luhansk would not be there without the bidding and support of the Russian government.

Girkin and his troops—let us call them “anti-Ukrainian forces,” because it seems the most accurate phrase to use (he is not a separatist leader as he is not a resident of Ukraine)—had already shot down two military planes earlier in the week before the downing of the civilian airliner on July 17. They then boasted about the latter event in recorded conversations, released by the Ukrainian SBU, as well as in Girkin’s own diary annotations, before realizing what they had hit. Girkin’s diary seems quite a credible source. He has kept such records in the past, for example during the Bosnian conflict, and his earlier entries of the Ukrainian war were never retracted or amended. That may be because Girkin is a military adventurer who believes his mission is to implant his and Russia’s preferred form of government not only in Ukraine, but worldwide, including places like Syria and the former Yugoslavia. US radar also detected the source of the missile as being close to the village of Hrabove (Donetsk Oblast).

So why cannot Russia and the anti-Ukrainian insurgents acknowledge what they did, explain that it was in error, and express their regrets and apologies to the families of those killed? That should be a simple task. Undoubtedly this is a chaotic scene with many armed groups not necessarily working in unison, as OSCE observer Michael Bociurkiw has pointed out. But a command structure remains in place and a completely disorganized group could not have fired such an advanced weapon. It required training and orders.

Putin’s statement that “the state over whose territory it occurred is responsible for the terrible tragedy” is absurd. By that same token, the United Kingdom was responsible for the Lockerbie plane destroyed by a terrorist bomb in 1988 or Ireland for the 1985 Air India flight, both of which had huge death tolls like MH17. Similarly irresponsible commentary came from RIA Novosti on July 18, which reported that: “there has been no evidence” that Russia has supplied arms to resistance forces in Ukraine, a statement that even the cautious Angela Merkel rejected.

Such denials belittle the Russian president’s expressions of regret at the losses. His general attitude of avoiding responsibility and living in a state of denial is reminiscent of that of another former KGB leader, the ailing Yuri Andropov, after a Soviet jet shot down Korean Air 007 on September 1, 1983 west of Sakhalin Island. The order to do so was given by General Anatoly Kornukhov, who paradoxically died, unrepentant, just three weeks ago. Both Putin and his predecessor Boris Yeltsin had decorated him previously for his loyal service to his homeland.

While it would be facile to deny the one-sidedness of many Western reports on this war, they pale beside the propaganda on the Russian side, which goes well beyond distortion. According to analyst Viktor Ukolov, the campaign is intended to ensure that the Russian military do not have the slightest sympathy for their adversaries when the time comes to “pull the trigger.” They include stories such as the crucifixion of a young child by the Right Sector in Sloviansk. The campaign’s impact has extended to more peaceful parts of Ukraine. Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov has declared it a war for the minds of people that is having a pernicious effect on his country.

As for Russian residents, as a Radio Liberty report by Robert Coalson noted recently, a June opinion poll conducted by the Levada Center, 90% of Russian residents obtain their news directly from Russian Television, and over 50% rely on a single source. A further 60% considered the treatment of Ukraine to be objective. There is little question therefore that Russians believe what they hear. But it is also a campaign that has entrapped the Russian leadership as well: once initiated it is difficult to stop, and it undermines any attempts at compromise once the enemy [Ukraine] is portrayed as a “neo-Nazi Junta,” a depiction incidentally that has found its way onto the Facebook and Twitter sites of many gullible Westerners, despite a presidential election in which rightist forces were heavily defeated and a forthcoming parliamentary election in the fall.

It is this sort of mindset that has brought about the callous and otherwise unfathomable reaction to the loss of MH17 and its innocent passengers, accompanied by a plethora of conspiracy theories, aspersions on the Ukrainian government, and of course denial of complicity on the part of Russia and its allies. Ultimately the first way out of this maze of fabrications and distortions is quite simple: an admission of guilt and open access to the crash scene. Very few observers believe that those who launched the missile deliberately fired on a civilian airliner—even including a Canadian analyst who describes the tragedy as a war crime and “mass murder.” On the other hand, the tragedy is a result of escalation of the war by Russia and its anti-Ukrainian insurgents inside Ukraine, most of which are Russian-led and armed. Its impact is exacerbated and deepened by the continuing denials of guilt from the Russian president and his ministers.

[hr] Article was originally published here
*The author expresses his gratitude to Eduard Baidaus, PhD candidate, University of Alberta, for his assistance on this essay.

Putin’s dwindling options in Ukraine

Vladimir Putin’s options in Ukraine appear to be diminishing as the war in the Donbas continues, despite an official ceasefire initiated on June 20 by Ukraine’s new president, Petro Poroshenko. After almost four months of conflict, which began on March 1, when Russian forces occupied Crimea, the impetus for further dramatic changes in revising territorial boundaries in Ukraine has slowed notably.

A survey conducted by the fund Public Opinion, reveals that today over 50% of Russians want Putin to run for president of Russia after 2018, when his current term expires. The survey points out that the increase in the president’s popularity stems directly from the annexation of Crimea. The direct costs to date have been serious without being dangerous. Ukraine refers to the situation as one of “temporary occupation.” The UN resolution on March 27, which stated that the Crimean Referendum “cannot be the basis for any changes of status” of the peninsula, received the support of 100 member countries out of 193, with 11 opposed, and 58 abstentions. The costs of the occupation will likely prove severe in future (up to 1 trillion rubles over four years), and building the bridge over the Kerch Straits alone will amount to R283-349 billion—around $8.3-$10.3 billion. These future impositions will eventually take a toll on the Russian economy, but may not affect Putin’s popularity for the immediate future.

But if Crimea has necessitated acceptable sacrifices, the situation in Eastern Ukraine has been more problematic from Moscow’s perspective. Despite intensive propaganda directed at local residents, there is little to suggest that the local population supports the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) or the Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR). Moreover, while nebulous concerning details, Poroshenko’s peace plan has acknowledged the need for decentralization of authority to the benefit of these regions. On the basis of a new Constitution, he declared, new local councils will be elected and form executive committees, which elect their own leaders. The proposed amendments would allow regions wide rights in the spheres of historical memory, cultural traditions, and language policy, and local communities in the Donbas will enjoy the right to use Russian, along with the state language (Ukrainian). The president also added that the program would create new jobs in the region with the assistance of the EU, but no investments would be forthcoming until warfare ended. Poroshenko is willing to talk to those who joined the separatists, but not those involved in acts of terrorism, murder, or torture.

Putin showed some signs of willingness to support the ceasefire, requesting the Federation Council to withdraw the resolution permitting military intervention in Ukraine. Valery Bolotov, head of separatist military forces in Luhansk and Aleksandr Khodakovsky, commander of the Vostok battalion, both took part in the press conference in support of the ceasefire, which was to expire on June 27. Three former presidents of Ukraine, Leonid Kuchma (he has been Poroshenko’s designated mediator in discussions with Russia), Leonid Kravchuk, and Viktor Yushchenko had earlier sent an open letter to Putin, demanding that he end aggression against Ukraine and start negotiations. Kravchuk remarked that without Putin, no peace proposals implemented by the Ukrainian side could be implemented. On June 22, Putin made a conciliatory statement on the need for a compromise acceptable to all sides, including the people of south-east Ukraine “who should feel they are an integral part of this country,” which taken literally would imply that the Russian president no longer recognizes the authority of the separatist regimes.

The difficulties, however, lie at the heart of these quasi-regimes and their self-appointed leaders. The “people’s governor” of Donetsk Oblast, Pavel Gubarev, proposed his own plan to resolve the conflict in southeastern Ukraine, which he posted on his Facebook page. It demanded that all Ukrainian troops be removed from the two breakaway republics and Kyiv should recognize their legitimacy, as well as the creation of conditions for a referendum in other regions of “Novorossiya.” He also stated that Ihor Kolomoiskyi (governor of Dnipropetrovsk), Arsen Avakov (Ukraine’s Minister of Internal Affairs), and Oleh Lyashko (leader of the Ukrainian Radical Party) must voluntarily give themselves up to the militia, while oligarch Rinat Akhmetov must return everything he has “stolen from the people,” gather his belongings, and leave the country. On June 21, at Lenin Square in Donetsk (i.e. the day after the ceasefire was introduced), the armed forces of the breakaway regions took an oath of loyalty, attended by “Prime Minister” Aleksandr Boroday, former MP Oleh Tsarev, and the head of the Novorossiya party, Gubarev. These are hardly the actions of people in a mood for compromise.

The same can be said of the head of the armed forces of the DNR, Igor Strelkov (Girkin), who stated in an interview with LifeNews on June 25 that he was prepared to observe a ceasefire only on three conditions. First, that the Ukrainian army should move 10 kilometers from the main army garrisons of the DNR and LNR; second, flights of Ukrainian military planes over zones controlled by rebels must stop; and third, artillery fire on settlements and separatist bases must end. While Strelkov has declared his gratitude to Russia for the provision of weapons, which have undoubtedly been used at his base on Slovyansk (resulting in the deaths of 49 military personnel after the shooting down of a Ukrainian plane in mid-June), his frustration with his ostensible masters in Moscow has been evident for some time. Further, the demands of both Strelkov and Gubarev are far-fetched in a situation where the Ukrainian president would prefer not to deal directly with those who wish to break up or challenge the territorial integrity of his country.

Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov maintains that Putin has betrayed the Russian mercenaries, who went to Ukraine brainwashed by propaganda. He points out that “Putin’s channels” (on Russian television) talk constantly about the heroic fight against “Fascists and Banderites” but they do not show Strelkov. The latter had been among the first to be obsessed with the anti-Ukrainian propaganda and had taken up guns and traveled to Slovyansk. His example was followed by hundreds of fighters from Russia, who became the backbone of resistance to the Ukrainian army. But whereas all television propaganda focused on Strelkov’s armed detachments, the leader himself was kept in the shadows. Nemtsov’s theory is that after the war, Strelkov and his companions will return to Russia incensed at Putin for his betrayal of them, and their next actions will not be in Slovyansk, but in Moscow. The implication is that they would want Putin removed from power for inciting them to action and then withdrawing support.

Nemtsov’s analysis, while perhaps overblown, nonetheless delves into the heart of the dilemmas facing Vladimir Putin. He gained a surge of popularity for the successful annexation of Crimea, but the intervention in Eastern Ukraine—the concept of the so-called “Novorossiya”—has run into serious difficulties and cannot be sustained without a full-scale Russian military invasion. In one operation alone, Ukraine’s anti-terrorist forces killed over 250 separatists, and while costly in terms of casualties and impact on the local population, the sustained, if error-strewn drive in place since Poroshenko’s inauguration has effectively ended prospects of separatist victory assuming the current array of forces is maintained. In that respect the ceasefire may have been somewhat premature. For Putin, however, a desperate situation is masked behind what seem to be “peace maneuvers.” In reality, without further escalation, the Russian leader will lose control over the forces he has created.

In this respect, Putin’s fatal mistake was less his encouragement of the likes of Strelkov, and rather his intervention into Crimea on March 1, which at one stroke changed a border in place for sixty years. At present none of these events seems to pose an immediate danger to the Russian president, but he is wise enough to recognize that his position is deteriorating. His actions have incurred human losses, great expenses, the alienation of much of the international community, and the lasting enmity of the vast majority of Ukrainians, all of which he might have been prepared to sustain if the result had been the end of Ukraine’s move toward the West or the self-rule or independence of its eastern territories. But none of this has happened, and separatists in Slovyansk, Kramatorsk, and other Donbas towns are now in peril. They cannot agree to a ceasefire because it will signify the end of their mission and the Russian leader seems to have abandoned them. In turn, Putin has no wish to initiate full-scale war and face the quagmire of another Afghanistan. If he deluded himself into the view that he would receive widespread support in Eastern Ukraine, he recognizes today that any major conflict would be protracted and costly. His actions on March 1 are now coming back to haunt him.