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Thoughts from Kyiv – Calm Before the Storm

[infobox title=’Thoughts from Kyiv’]Thoughts from Kyiv is brought to you by Mychailo Wynnyckyj, Associate Professor of the Department of Sociology and Kyiv-Mohyla Business School, Director of the Doctoral School, National University of “Kyiv-Mohyla Academy”. Below are his thoughts and writings on the situation in Ukraine. [/infobox]

A full six days have now passed since the signing of the Minsk “cease fire” agreement. I place the term in quotes because in reality, although the intensity of fighting in the Donbas seems to have diminished, the shooting certainly has not stopped, According to Ukrainian media, Russian-backed terrorists regularly strafe Ukrainian army roadblocks; the National Security Council of Ukraine reports over 120 violations of the so-called cease-fire since last Friday. According to the Russian media, of course, it is the Ukrainians who are at fault: reports of continued use of artillery by Ukrainian forces in Donetsk fill pro-Russian social media and websites (e.g. www.anna-news.info). In this situation the only thing that one can assert with certainty is that, despite the best efforts of the Poroshenko administration, full scale military action is likely to resume soon.

War is always accompanied by a certain amount of fog. We know that throughout July and August, the pro-Russian forces (equipped and financed by the Kremlin, and consisting of a small number of Donbas locals and large numbers of mercenaries from Russia) were gradually pushed back by Ukraine’s regular army and volunteer battalions. However at the end of August, the Ukrainian forces apparently suffered a serious defeat near the town of Ilovaysk. There, the rag-tag forces of the “Donetsk People’s Republic”, finally received reinforcements from Russia: large numbers of tanks, special forces troops (including Pskov-based paratroopers), heavy artillery, “Smerch” and “Hrad” multiple rocket launch systems (MLRS) – weapons systems capable of destroying (flattening) an area of 67 hectares within 40 seconds (http://euromaidanpress.com/2014/09/09/the-most-horrific-weapon-after-nuclear-weapons-what-brotherly-russia-uses-to-shell-ukraine-video/). The result: many dead and wounded on the Ukrainian side (accurate numbers are still not available, and many bodies are mangled beyond recognition), and several hundred taken prisoner by the pro-Russian forces. Under the auspices of the “ceasefire” many of these prisoners have now been freed. Universally, the Ukrainian soldiers on the ground report having faced, and prisoners having been held, by Russian army regulars.

Meanwhile, according to press reports, the build-up of Russian forces near Rostov-on-Don continues; evidence of new concentrations of troops in northern Crimea has surfaced; columns of military vehicles (including tanks and APC’s) cross the Ukrainian border to fortify Russian positions in eastern Ukraine regularly. On the other hand, yesterday President Poroshenko announced that 70% of Russia’s invading force has now been withdrawn… In reality, no one really knows what is going on in the Donbas right now.

Poroshenko seems to believe that peace is possible. As he himself admitted when announcing the cease fire on Sept 5, the political pressure on him from his European counterparts to strike a deal that would end the fighting in the Donbas has been intense. However, if Poroshenko’s peace plan (the details of which are still unclear) involves giving up territory, or even agreeing to grant some sort of special status to the Russian-controlled enclaves while ‘de jure’ retaining them within the territory of Ukraine, such a “land-for-peace” deal will be very difficult to sell to the Ukrainian people. As I noted in my last post (http://www.ukiedaily.com/thoughts-from-kyiv/2014/09/thoughts-kyiv-01-09-2014/), a wave of patriotism has engulfed Ukraine; perhaps unrealistically, but many here believe that a full-scale invasion of Ukraine by Russia can be stopped – either on the battle front or by partisans.

I’ll say more on the prospects of both peace and military escalation below, but I think it is important to note that for the moment, discussion of both topics is politically charged, and accompanied by lots of spin. For example, with respect to the Poroshenko peace plan, smelling blood, Tymoshenko, Lyashko and Hrytsenko – three leaders of parties showing significant support in pre-October 26 parliamentary election polls – have already started screaming. So far, Poroshenko has not yet been openly accused of treason, but questions are being asked as to why Kyiv is apparently striking deals with terrorists who have committed atrocities against Ukrainians (gory photos of the heads of captured volunteer battalion soldiers apparently beheaded by pro-Russian fighters in Luhansk circulated through social media today). “Why has our commander capitulated?” is a question on the minds of many in the volunteer battalions – particularly those eager to avenge the deaths of their fallen comrades.

With respect to renewed military action, although the Presidential Administration may be downplaying its prospects – particularly after the NATO summit when Poroshenko was clearly told that Ukraine stands against Russia alone – no one that I know in Kyiv believes that Putin has stopped for long. Indeed tonight, the news casts are filled with reports of further territorial losses by the Ukrainian side: the small strip of land between Novoazovsk and the DPR-occupied territory further north has now been captured by Russian forces. Although Slovyansk and Kramatorsk have not yet been retaken by Putin’s proxies, the city of Donetsk is under Russian control (though its airport remains under the control of Ukrainian forces), and in Luhansk, Ukrainian troops were forced to retreat from their defensive positions at the airport late last week. The conflict is temporarily frozen to neither side’s satisfaction, and therefore few doubt that renewed military action is imminent. The question now is only what form it will take.

The most immediate prospect seems to be a limited ground war in Ukraine’s south-east led by a Russian frontal assault along the coast of the Azov Sea towards Mariupol. This city of almost half a million inhabitants, approximately 60km from the Russian border, and less than 40 km from the Russian-occupied town of Novoazovsk, has now dug in – literally: the eastern approaches to the city are now blocked by trenches and other defensive installations. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AvIgg_9naKs). Although it is still possible (some say – likely) that Putin will try to move forward through or around Mariupol to establish a land corridor to Crimea, further extensive ground operations will now cost Russia very heavy casualties. After Mariupol, he will have to punch through Berdyansk and Melitopol  – two other major cities en route to Crimea – both of which seem determined to resist Russian occupation. Given the (as yet limited) anti-war protests in St. Petersburg and Moscow that have already been sparked by the shipment of hundreds of dead Russian soldiers home from the Donbas, it is unlikely that Putin will be able to stomach a prolonged ground war. The Kremlin will be forced to search for other options.

If Putin remains true to his semi-covert style of incursion, involving a degree of (im)plausible deniability as to the direct involvement of the Russian military on the ground, he may turn to funding and otherwise facilitating “terrorist” attacks on government buildings and infrastructure targets in Ukraine’s major urban centers. This would serve to expand the “insurgency” from the Donbas region, and to destabilize the “Kyiv junta” (as the Russian media continues to call Ukraine’s government). Certainly such action would lead to the imposition of governmental restrictions on democratic freedoms (i.e. to a partial roll-back of Ukrainians’ revolutionary gains) which would provide further opportunities for discrediting the Maidan by the Kremlin’s propaganda machine. However, bombs “spontaneously” blowing up in the Kyiv subway, on Lviv’s central square, and in Dnipropetrovsk’s “Yuzhmash” rocket factory would likely only consolidate patriotic opposition. Ukrainian patriotism seems to be a phenomenon that Putin does not understand, and so (likely) fears.

Given that no one anywhere (including in Russia) seems to still believe the fairytale of Russia’s “non-involvement” in Ukraine, Putin may just decide to drop the pretense, and engage “the fascist evil” (as the Russian media refers to Ukraine) directly. With the land war stalled and Ukrainian defenders dug in, Putin’s logical next step in this scenario would be escalation to aerial bombardment – not just of frontal areas, but of Ukraine’s major urban centers as well. The cities of Kyiv (the capital), Lviv (the center of “nationalism” according to Kremlin propaganda), and especially Dnipropetrovsk (the eastern industrial center that has foiled Putin’s plan for creating Novorosiya by remaining loyal to Kyiv) are likely to top the list of targets. If bombing is ordered, it will be timed to begin after the completion of NATO’s ongoing training exercises in western Ukraine (“Rapid Trident”) and the Black Sea (“Sea Breeze”), but before the October 26 Parliamentary election. After-all, Putin’s aims are to undermine Ukraine, avoid NATO engagement, and foster chaos. Elections are not part of his plan, but neither is occupation, so the more destruction the better – but without actually soliciting a direct military response from the West.

If “Backfire” bombers and non-nuclear tipped ballistic missiles fly towards Kyiv, will the West respond militarily? After the NATO summit in Wales, few in Ukraine believe that even such overt aggression would be enough to prompt a response from the West. Notwithstanding the real need for Ukraine to be declared by NATO to be a “no-fly-zone” (I have called for this many times in the past), the consensus in Kyiv is that the “best” Ukrainians can hope for is that Russian aerial bombardment will be enough to convince US and EU leaders that the time has come to supply lethal weapons to the Ukrainian military (just in case: anti-aircraft missiles and equipment trainers would be very welcome). But at the end of the day, this is Ukraine’s war; Ukraine must protect Europe, European values, and itself. The message from Wales was loud and clear (both to Poroshenko and Putin): no NATO involvement unless (until) a NATO country is actually attacked…

Notwithstanding the depressing prospect of having to face Russia’s military alone, it is at least heartening that in the US (which represents 80% of NATO’s military capability), the debate over whether Washington should be arming Kyiv has become an issue for public debate: http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2014/09/08/should-nato-be-helping-ukraine-face-russia. But the current reality is that Obama has no appetite for engaging Putin in direct conflict. Indeed, speaking at yesterday’s NATO-Ukraine conference in Kyiv, Adrian Karatnycky of the Atlantic Council (a Washington-based think tank) made it clear that the US political elite – with eyes wide open as to the reality of Putin’s threat to the global security order – still perceives the possibility of a negotiated settlement of the regional conflict in the Donbas to be preferable to further military escalation. Indeed Washington seems to be exerting considerable political pressure on Kyiv to make such a peaceful solution to the “Ukraine crisis” (which is still not seen as a local instantiation of an already commenced global conflict) a reality.

As I told Adrian however, the problem we face is that neither of the peace options currently on the table is politically possible. The two options are:

  1. Granting special status to the Donbas (i.e. what Putin wants). This would suit the international community because the principle of the sanctity of borders would be maintained (though not in Crimea) since the Donetsk and Luhansk “People’s Republics” would nominally remain within Ukraine’s territory. However, responsibility for reconstruction of the region’s infrastructure would then squarely fall on Kyiv (i.e. would bankrupt Ukraine’s economy). Furthermore, given the evident animosity between the DPR/LPR leaders and Kyiv it is difficult to see how these regions could be even nominally integrated into Ukraine without the deployment of an international peacekeeping force. Effectively, this would mean freezing the conflict in the Donbas for many years to come with Russia (as the ‘de facto’ regional hegemon) gaining a long-term Abkhazia-, Ossetia-, TransDnistria-like capability to destabilize Kyiv politically and economically at will.
  2. Negotiating full independence for the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (without ‘de jure’ recognition by Ukraine, but with the support of Russia). As Alexander Motyl has pointed out (http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/141946/alexander-j-motyl/putins-trap), in the long term, this kind of “cauterization” could be beneficial to Ukraine’s consolidation as a nation-state, and would remove any obligation from Kyiv to finance the reconstruction of the Donbas. However, at this point any agreement to give up territory would be comparable to political suicide for President Poroshenko: too many Ukrainian patriots have died in the Donbas for the soldiers of the volunteer battalions to accept a “land-for-peace” deal with Russia. Any such deal would inevitably lead to the rise of populism, and strengthening of unpredictable nationalist political groups. Furthermore, such a capitulation would likely discredit any and all gains achieved by the Maidan in the minds of Ukrainians – their self-assurance, national pride, and social cohesiveness will have proved futile, and the consequences for future generations would be devastating.

Neither of these two options is acceptable, and none one other exists in the short term. Therefore, the stand-off will (sooner, rather than later) break, and fighting will resume. And this time Putin will escalate.

Why do I feel confident in making such predictions (regular readers of my “Thoughts from Kyiv” know, that after several predictions of imminent invasion, I have become much more careful in making predictions)? Social scientists are trained to look for patterns in events – that’s the “science” part of the profession without which a sociologist or political scientist would simply be a commentator on current events. During the past 10 months I have lived through a revolution and now a war. These two experiences seem to be tracking a similar pattern of escalation. Specifically, the mood in Kyiv at the moment is very similar to the one I felt in early February.

At that time, the protests had already lived through their “outrage” phases – caused by the initial beatings of students on November 30, and then the gradual clamp down against protesters by the regime that included kidnappings, beatings, and disappearances on the one hand, and consolidation of the protest movement (transformation of Maidan into a “Sich” fortress) on the other. By February, the hardened protesters had experienced their first deaths (Jan 19), and several  violent attacks on their positions by the regime; on Maidan, they were struggling as to whether to accept the regime’s offer to find a nominal compromise solution to the standoff. At the time an amnesty law had just been passed by Parliament with a demand that protesters withdraw from Kyiv’s main thoroughfares – a condition that the vast majority of Maidan protesters rejected outright. The price of peace was just too high. With its offer rejected, the regime decided to force a resolution to the crisis: mass violence including killings. It backfired…

As I try to conclude this post, I’m sitting watching a pre-election televised debate on 1+1 television. Iryna Herashchenko (President Poroshenko’s official representative responsible for the peaceful resolution of the conflict in the Donbas) just made a telling statement: “We all want peace, but we want a just peace. And at the moment we are a very long way indeed from achieving that kind of peace.” I can only add the following: peace always follows war, but only after some resolution to the issue that originally caused the war is found. Putin is the issue. So far, no resolution is visible to me – even on the distant horizon.

With no prospects for peace, the stand-off will not last long: Putin will try to force the issue by moving forward – and that means escalation. Realistically, it is unlikely that NATO forces will be directly involved in the conflict as long as Putin does not violate the territorial integrity of a NATO country. Having the US grant Ukraine “major Non-NATO ally” status in such a situation seems unlikely also – after-all, with Russian forces on the ground in Ukraine, and Russian planes bombing the country’s cities, such an act would be tantamount to a declaration of war by the US, and would put the world at risk of a global nuclear war.  So, the best Ukraine can hope for in case of escalation by the Kremlin, is a steady supply of weapons from its friends in the West.

But in Kyiv, few are counting even on that. On Maidan, we were unarmed, and we faced the full might of Yanukovych’s regime. We prevailed. Today, we are poorly armed, and we face the full might of Putin’s Russia. The cost will be higher, but again we will prevail.

God help us!

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