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.

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