Friday, 30 May 2014

Time For Some Blunt Words To Russia

When the 10th century Prince of Rus Sviatoslav I resolved to crush a neighboring tribe of eastern Slavs, the Vyatichi, he issued history's most curt, aggressive, direct and unambiguous declaration of war.

His quite undiplomatic four-word note to the chiefs of the Vyatichi read "Хощю на вы ити" (Khoshchiu na vy iti) or "I'm coming to have at you." He was as good as his word, and after defeating the Vyatichi he forced them to pay tribute to Rus, rather than to a rival power, the Khazars, as they had before. (Incidentally, according to contemporary descriptions of the prince, the blue-eyed, blond-haired Sviatoslav wore a long mustache, a side lock on his shaven head, a single golden earring, and a white vyshyvanka embroidered shirt. If he could somehow have been magically resurrected and brought to Kyiv in the early months of 2014, he would have had no difficulty in recognizing on which side of the barricades were standing the descendants of his druzhina, or war-band).

Now war has again come to the lands that Sviatoslav once ruled, although no such clear declaration of it as his has yet been made. Russia's declaration of war has instead been made in the form of the actions it has taken since the toppling of the corrupt government of former President Viktor Yanukovych by the Ukrainian people in late February this year.

First we saw the appearance of the "little green men" - soldiers in unmarked uniforms carrying Russian weapons and equipment - surrounding key facilities in Crimea. Despite the Kremlin's denials, it was obvious to the rest of the world that these soldiers were Russians. After a hasty, rigged, pseudo referendum, Russia helped itself to a portion of Ukraine's territory.

Next, similar formations of soldiers began to turn up in the eastern oblasts of Ukraine, taking over, with military efficiency, administrative and security facilities over a swathe of the Donbas. Again there were denials of involvement from Moscow, but through the work of journalists and the Ukrainian security services we now even learned some of the names of Ukraine's Russian invaders.

They included former Russian intelligence officer Igor Girkin, his bearded associate Aleksandr "Babai" Mozhaev, Cossack Evgenii "Dingo" Ponomarev, and Vladislav "Berkut-Kobr" Tkachenko (who, by the way, has a distasteful penchant for dressing himself up in Nazi-era German military uniforms). The Russian presence in the east was now undeniable.

Then in late May we saw the addition of another unwelcome ingredient to the cup of war mixed by Moscow in the Donbas – Chechen fighters from the former Vostok Battalion, a Russian spetsnaz special forces formation. Dozens of them were killed on May 26, when they tried to seize Donetsk airport, and their remains were quickly transported back to Russia, but enough of them remained alive to stage on May 29 what looked very much like a coup against the leaders of the self-proclaimed "Donetsk People's Republic." Russia now seems to have taken ownership of the mess it has created in eastern Ukraine.

This all adds up to a wordless yet unequivocal declaration of war by Russia against Ukraine. By flooding the Donbas with men and matériel, and retaining significant numbers of troops on the border, Russia threatens to further annex parts of Ukraine.

The danger now facing Ukraine is stark. But as per usual, the Western response has been frustratingly flaccid. When are we going to hear from Western capitals the announcement of a fresh round of painful sanctions against the Russian regime? So far there has been silence.

What is required is immediate support for Ukraine, in the form of copious quantities of non-lethal military supplies, backed up by a sanctions regime that finally bares some teeth. If this is not forthcoming, then the situation in Ukraine, and perhaps beyond, is only going to get worse.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is an old Cold Warrior who fights his battles by means of covert action and subterfuge, with lies and propaganda, and he will never openly declare his hostile intentions. But there can be no doubt that if his plans succeed in Ukraine he will be "having at" another of his perceived foes soon. If the West wants to prevent another war in Europe, it must, in words as blunt as Sviatoslav's, tell Putin that Russia's warmongering is to end in eastern Ukraine.

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Get Ready For The Big One

With the May 25 presidential elections in Ukraine now only days away, there is growing evidence that the Ukrainian government may be ready for a decisive final battle to eliminate the armed separatist rebellion in the Donbas once and for all.

The government’s anti-terrorist operation appears to have been taking a heavy toll on the rebels and their foreign mercenaries as of late, both in terms of casualties and in morale. In the past week perhaps more than one hundred rebels have been killed, with Ukrainian forces’ losses at about 25 – the Ukrainian defense ministry yesterday said that between 50 and 100 bodies of rebels killed in recent fighting are piled up in the morgues of Sloviansk, and that the rebels planned to move them out of the country by establishing a corridor through the Ukrainian border that would also allow reinforcements to gain entry to Ukraine.

Possible evidence of the rebels’ attempt to put such a plan into effect came last night, when there was fierce fighting between a group of rebels and Ukrainian border troops at Stanichna Luhanska on Ukraine’s border with Russia in Luhansk region. The border troops repelled the attack.

Then there are the recent pronouncements by the rebels, notably one by the bearded Russian mercenary “Babai,” who appealed to Russian President Vladimir Putin for aid, and a corridor to be set up to resupply the rebels, and Russian insurgent commander Igor Girkin, who complained of a lack of support from the local population. These could well be signs of a collapse in morale among the terrorists; there have also been numerous reports of infighting between rebel groups.

On top of that, reports and videos have emerged in recent days demonstrating that the people of the east of Ukraine have tired of supporting their armed Russian guests - not that they ever even fully supported them at all.

Interior Minister Arsen Avakov also yesterday gave the green light to the commanders of the government’s anti-terrorist operation to move into the final phases of the plan. That would imply an attack soon on the rebels’ last strongholds in Sloviansk and Kramatorsk. Once those nests of armed rebellion are cleared out, there is nowhere else for the mercenaries to go but back to Russia – if they survive the fight.

Such an operation would be perilous and would definitely involve loss of life on both sides, and probably casualties among the civilian populations of these occupied towns, but the government may feel it now has a decisive edge over the rebels, and that a final battle would allow it to secure control over the restive eastern regions in time for polling day on Sunday.

If so, we can expect a strong attack on Sloviansk in the coming days. Get ready for the big one.

Sunday, 18 May 2014

Running Out of Steam?

For several weeks after the Donbas separatism movement erupted in early April, (seemingly out of nowhere, but as we all know actually out of Russia), the insurgency in eastern Ukraine seemed like a runaway steam locomotive hurtling inevitably towards the maiden of Ukrainian unity lying bound helplessly on the tracks.

We buried our faces in our palms as building after government building in Donetsk and Luhansk was occupied by a few dozen armed men, while the police either waved the occupiers in with a welcoming wink or shrugged and shuffled off with an impotent “my job’s not worth this” expression.

We tore our hair out as we watched Ukrainian troops being surrounded, disarmed, and dis-armored-personnel-carriered by small crowds of civilians covering for tiny bands of well-armed men. It seemed like a few dozen insurgents and a motley rent-a-mob of disaffected Russian-propaganda-brainwashed easterners could hold the country to ransom while setting about its dismemberment.

But what a change a month can make. In the two weeks or so since the government’s crassly named “Anti-Terrorist Operation” finally got into gear, the runaway train of separatism seems to have lost much of its steam. From their public pronouncements, it seems the rebels are getting desperate: Just a few days ago, the rebel second-in-command issued a rambling statement, with Hitlerian overtones, threatening to carry out a scorched-earth policy within 24 hours if the government’s forces didn’t withdraw from Donetsk and Luhansk. The day-long deadline came and went, and the government responded only by beefing up its forces and pressing forward, capturing back more ground, and killing perhaps dozens of rebels.

The threatened response from the rebels failed to materialize, and a recent video rant by the rebels’ commander-in-chief, Igor Girkin (a.ka. “Strelok”) shows us why: The armed separatists simply don’t have much support from Ukrainians living in the east.

The rest of us have long known about that from the polls, of course, which have regularly shown that only a small minority of the Ukrainians in the eastern regions support these lands’ secession from Ukraine, and that fewer still want to feel the clawing, freedom-suffocating bear hug of union with Mother Russia.

However, this well-known fact seems to be only just dawning on the leader of the eastern rebels. In his video address, Girkin lamented that only a few of the men of Donbas were willing to take up arms for the cause, and those that did were mainly over 40. Seemingly in despair at the deficit of virility in young Donbas Man, Girkin instead appealed to the women of the east to join him, noting gallantly that although they were obviously not officer class, at least they were better than nothing.

I have no reason to disparage the fighting spirit of the Ukrainian female (having been married to one and seen her in action at close quarters), but Girkin’s appeal seems to have missed the point: It’s clear that easterners, both male and female, are quite prepared to fight for the things they believe in - it’s just that not many of them believe in separatism. Rather than questioning manhood in Ukraine’s east, Girkin should be questioning the wisdom of the Kremlin-inspired adventurism into which he, and a few other Russian nationalist mercenaries, have been conscripted.
P.S. This week’s Russian Propaganda Snigger comes from the British so-called journalist, blogger and RT correspondent Graham Phillips. Our intrepid reporter stumbled into a tripwire flare, but immediately filed a report that he had been shot at by Ukrainian troops. It is a rare occasion indeed that one can make an idiot of oneself and then immediately sell the story to the Russian state media. You can watch the bumbling fool here: Check out the “Oi! Oi! Oi!” cries Phillips gives for the benefit of the great Russian public at the end of the clip. Such histrionics might not advance his journalistic career outside of Russia, but he at least has a slim chance of a BAFTA award.

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Reflections ahead of the presidential elections

With the presidential elections in Ukraine only ten days away, there are a few questions still up in the air, with not much sign of them hitting the ground before polling day. Here are some of them. 

Will the elections be able to go ahead at all?

There may be some cause for optimism here: The Verkhovna Rada today (May 15) passed an election law that would allow the election results to be validated even if some regions or districts were not to provide a return. Although Donetsk region and Luhansk region are still not fully under the control of the government, and an active campaign by the separatists to thwart the presidential poll is underway, this could still allow Kyiv to claim to have elected a legitimate president on May 25 - if there is unimpeded voting in the rest of the country. Of course, the separatists, even after a legitimate vote, could continue to claim that their part of the country is still not adequately represented, but from a legal point of view the result would stand. All the same, there is still a significant risk that up to 15% of Ukraine’s electorate (in Donestk and Luhansk) might be disenfranchised by the chaos in the east of the country. While that wouldn’t necessarily derail the vote, it would guarantee political problems further down the track. Of course, if violence of the scale seen in Odesa and Mariupol recently were to erupt all around the country, there would be little chance of holding a credible vote, but the security gains made by the government in recent days give hope that order, if not the law, will be maintained on polling day in most of Ukraine.

Who are the easterners going to vote for? 

Even if they do make it into the voting booth, people from the east of Ukraine might have problems choosing whose name to tick: The front-runners are all from the other camp, and the candidates from the east are a mixed bag of freaks, losers and clowns. Realistically, the only option they have is the odious turncoat Serhiy Tighipko, who has allegedly been polling better than Tymoshenko recently. But nationally he is still wallowing in single digits, and has no chance of making it past the first round, far less taking up residence in Bankova. The next president will not be from the east, and there won’t be an opportunity to make sure the eastern regions can send their own to Kyiv until the next elections to parliament.

Will the vote be fair? 

Front-runner Petro Poroshenko, according to Ukrainian political expert Ivan Lozowy, has long been salting the electoral-campaign well by commissioning polls that invariably place him at the head of the pack, creating the impression among the voting public that the chocolate juggernaut is inevitably destined to come to rest with a comfortable splat behind the big desk in the Presidential Administration. That said, the vote itself should be fair, given that more than 1,000 international observers have been parachuted in to keep a close eye on the vote itself. All the same, Ukraine has virtually no democratic tradition, and the Yanukovych presidency showed how easy it was to reverse the fair voting gains that were made after the Orange Revolution. And with disorder liable to break out anywhere in the south or east, the vote count could be even more problematic than usual. Ukraine’s arcane voting system, with its “wet stamps” and outrageously biased local electoral commissions, has so many weak links that any number of breaks could appear between the polling booth and the final tally. Remember the five “problem districts” that couldn’t return a result for months after the 2012 Rada elections? Such problems could be repeated anywhere across the south and east of the country if there is a determined campaign by pro-Russian activists to disrupt the vote. Disputed vote counts, forged stamps, stuffed ballot boxes, ballot boxes being blown up… the possibilities are tiresomely endless.

Will Russia scupper the vote?

No matter how we might pout and fume about the influence Big Brother next door has on Ukrainian politics, this question has to be addressed. Russia has refused to recognize the legitimacy of the current interim Ukrainian government, even though it was elected by a parliament with a full mandate and in keeping with all the procedures foreseen in the Ukrainian constitution. Russia will have a harder task proving its case if an orderly vote goes ahead on May 25, so we can expect Moscow to do its damnedest to throw the whole poll into doubt. The very worst thing the Kremlin could do is send its tanks in on May 25, but it is more likely, militarily, that Moscow will be content just to hold some threatening exercises on the border, as it has already said it will do. Inside Ukraine, Russia will try to cause as much trouble as it can by bombarding Ukraine’s Russophone population with propaganda suggesting that the vote itself is illegitimate – expect the Russian media to reach new levels of anti-Kyiv hysteria in this regard in the days before the vote. Acts of voting sabotage can be expected in Donetsk and Luhansk, and maybe in Odesa, Mykolayiv, Zaporizha and Kherson – the oblasts of “Novorussia” – a territory Putin has his greedy eyes on. The tiniest incident or problem will be gleefully recorded by Russian reporters, blown up out of all proportion, and then given massive coverage by RT. This is probably the biggest threat to the vote in Ukraine: that it will be free and fair, but undermined and made less credible in the eyes of the world by a massive onslaught of Russian media troll commentary, negative news hype, and outright lies. With its new style of warfare, Russia has shown that the pen, while not necessarily mightier than the sword, can be used in handy combination with a threatening blade to conquer first minds, and then territory.