Ukraine’s War of Independence
Vladimir Putin has unleashed forces that even he can’t control
Slate | July 30 2014
The latest round of economic sanctions against Russia is an act of desperation by Western leaders, baffled by Vladimir Putin’s intransigence over the conflict in Ukraine. Pleas and threats—voiced in backroom meetings and countless phone calls with the Russian president—failed to move Putin to publicly disown the pro-Russian rebels. Even the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine didn’t sway the Kremlin leader. The sanctions announced by the U.S. and European Union on Tuesday are an admission that the diplomatic toolkit is officially empty.
The West has miscalculated Putin’s machinations ever since his Ukrainian proxy, then-President Viktor Yanukovych, fled to Russia in February after three months of pro-EU protests ended in a massacre on Kiev’s Maidan square. To most Western Europeans at the time, Ukraine was an annoyingly large, poor country whose aspirations for EU membership caused more headaches than jubilation. But to Putin, Ukraine signified a strategically vital buffer zone whose sovereignty came only second to Russia’s national security. He was playing the highest stakes from the very start.
When pro-Western politicians formed a provisional government in the power vacuum that Yanukovych left behind, Putin was convinced that a U.S.-funded regime change had returned to Russia’s doorstep. Without hesitation he annexed Crimea—home to the Russian Black Sea Fleet—to forestall any future NATO expansion. Then Putin encouraged pro-Russian protests in eastern Ukraine in an effort to throw the new Kiev authorities farther off balance.
Putin understood the struggle for Ukraine to be about Russia’s—and his own—survival. He connected the dots from Kiev’s pro-Western Orange Revolution in 2004 to the anti-government protests that swept Moscow seven years later. This time Putin would take no chances: Allowing Ukraine to choose a Western course would be tantamount to letting the enemy in through the gates. In the former KGB agent’s world, where little happens due to chance or coincidence, one cynical conspiracy had to be met with another.
To Putin’s surprise, the attempt to start a pro-Russian, “anti-Maidan” uprising in predominantly Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine failed miserably. While local people may have been skeptical of closer association with the EU and the new Kiev government, they also didn’t rally en masse around the Russian flag and incoherent calls for “federalization.” That’s why small, well-armed groups began seizing government buildings at strategic locations around the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in April to force the cause of independence from the “fascist Kiev junta.” Supporters believed a slapdash “yes” referendum would guarantee them a fate like Crimea’s. Instead, the clumsy, unprepared Ukrainian military arrived to put down the rebellion.
Earlier rounds of Western sanctions may have made Putin think twice about sending regular troops into Ukraine, but nothing was stopping men and matériel from crossing the porous border from Russia. What started as a bunch of bored teenagers and frustrated middle-aged men playing soldier has since turned into a localized but very real war that has cost more than 1,100 lives, according to the United Nations.
On a visit to Donetsk last week, I was struck by the change in mood compared with previous months. The city of 1 million has become a ghost town as the Ukrainian military closes in on the rebel stronghold. While locals used to openly express support for the separatists, I heard no praise for the rebels this time. One older woman whose neighborhood had been shelled told me she was disappointed that Petro Poroshenko, elected Ukraine’s president in May, reneged on his promise to make his first trip to Donetsk. A shopkeeper confided in me that she and all her acquaintances were impatiently awaiting the Ukrainian Army. A taxi driver railed that the anarchy was a bonanza for criminal gangs.
It wouldn’t be correct to call the current fighting a civil war because of the ambiguous, outsize role Russia has played. The Donetsk rebels’ commander, Igor Girkin, and their political leader, Alexander Borodai, are both from Moscow. Contrary to Kremlin propaganda, there is no conflict between Ukrainian- and Russian-speakers. Large swaths of Ukraine, including Kiev, speak Russian as a first language.
In many ways, the conflict could be characterized as Ukraine’s war of independence, since the fighting has galvanized a sense of nation among Ukrainians regardless of where they live. Even if they didn’t support the pro-EU protesters during the winter demonstrations on the Maidan, most Ukrainians now view Russia as an antagonistic neighbor that can’t be trusted. It’s become impossible for Ukrainians to feel ambivalent about their national identity.
Just because Putin hasn’t succeeded in instigating a larger pro-Russian uprising doesn’t mean that a quick resolution is in sight. Ukrainian politicians from all camps have proved themselves to be singularly shortsighted and self-interested. Last week, with the battle for the East still far from won, the government coalition collapsed and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk resigned. When cold weather returns in the fall and the Ukrainian government discovers it doesn’t have enough money to pay Russian natural-gas giant Gazprom, the energy crunch will start to bite. And without a decisive victory on the battlefield, frustrations both within the military and on the homefront could boil over. It’s far from clear whether Ukraine can win its war for independence.
Putin has already shown that he is prepared to let Ukraine go up in flames—even if the consequences for Russia are unforeseeable. The danger is that the violent, nationalist elements in Russia unleashed by the war will demand greater Russian involvement, especially if the rebels lose more ground. Should Ukrainian forces manage to stamp out the rebellion, the chauvinist ghosts that Putin invoked to annex Crimea could come back to haunt him. The Girkins and Borodais of the world cheer Putin only as long as they see him restoring lost Russian glory, but their allegiance to the Kremlin is not unconditional. The blowback from Ukraine could make sanctions look like a joke.
Lucian Kim, a former Moscow correspondent, is now based in Berlin.
‘Ukrainian Rebels’ Aren’t Ukrainian or Rebels
The Moscow Times | Jul. 28 2014
As we slowly move beyond the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, it is gradually becoming clearer that the likelihood of a proper international investigation, unimpeded by external actors, has all but evaporated. There have been numerous reports of separatists tampering with the crash site, denying international investigators access to the crash and even raiding bodies of cash and other valuables.
But where the separatists have likely stolen any chance to determine for sure who destroyed MH17, they have, through their blundering exploits, allowed us to remind ourselves of who these men are, of what they want and of what they are willing to do. And most of all, they have allowed us an opportunity to examine just where they come from.
Unfortunately, in the blitz of media coverage since the crash, a handful of outlets continue to label the separatists fighting in Donetsk and Luhansk as "Ukrainian rebels."
But if the annihilation of MH17 ends in anything, it should be the realization that these men are neither "Ukrainian" nor "rebels." Rather than Ukrainian citizens carrying a legitimate grievance against the Kiev government’s pro-EU outlook, they are outsiders and usurpers, men with either mercenary or imperial motivations.
They are pro-Russian, yes. They are separatists. But these men are invaders — and they are not Ukrainians.
Just look at the leadership structure of those who purport to fight for Novorossia, a large area of land in east and southeast Ukraine once ruled by Russia.
Igor Strelkov, considered commander-in-chief of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR), maintains Russian citizenship. In addition to having a Russian intelligence background, either in the Federal Security Service or the Main Intelligence Directorate, Strelkov loves to re-enact famous Russian battles and appears to see himself in the tradition of Russian tsarist officers.
Alexander Borodai, meanwhile, carries the self-appointed mantle of prime minister of the Donetsk People’s Republic. He sought to speak on behalf of the separatists last week, handing off the black boxes from MH17 that he and his troops had found, swaggering as Malaysian officials referred to him as "his excellency." And yet Borodai is simply another Russian, an interloper rather than an local.
And then there’s Vladimir Antyufeyev, the new deputy prime minister in eastern Ukraine. Antyufeyev carries a peculiar, disconcerting legacy. Before coming to Ukraine he held security roles in the breakaway states of Transdnestr and Abkhazia, pro-Russian separatist regions in Moldova and Georgia respectively. Like Putin, Strelkov and Borodai, Antyufeyev is a Russian citizen.
But it is not simply that Russian citizens riddle the leadership ranks of these separatists, drowning local grievances and eliminating any local stake in the movement. Rather, it is that the actual troops fighting, while undoubtedly including within their ranks plenty of Ukrainian citizens, are a compendium of post-Soviet citizenships.
Mercenary Uzbeks have been observed multiple times among the fighters, and there are unconfirmed reports of Kazakhs acting on behalf of the rebels. A reporter from Radio Free Europe even went so far as to pose as an Uzbek interested in volunteering. Recruiters for the DPR in Moscow replied that they would heartily welcome the volunteer, but that the lack of a Russian passport could pose a problem. The lack of Ukrainian citizenship? Not so much.
The Vostok Battalion, among the more professional of the various armed brigands, made headlines when its Chechen fighters first appeared in eastern Ukraine. Ossetians, likewise, have been spotted fighting in what they hope will be Novorossia.
Although some are undoubtedly motivated by mercenary inclinations, many non-Ukrainians are there for more than money. An Armenian citizen recruited through the separatists’ Moscow office, who has since left the ranks of the separatists, said that he was "fighting for [the Soviet Union]." A Turkmen national, swathed in Soviet regalia, was filmed a few days later saying much the same thing. Those leading and arming the invasion force are not fighting for the rights of ethnic minorities or for democratic self-determination, values that ethnic Russians native to eastern Ukraine might reasonably fight for. They are fighting for a nostalgic vision of empire.
And it is not just those fighting in Ukraine who see the conflict as a fight for empire. A friend of mine, an ethnic Russian in northern Kazakhstan, recently referred to these men in eastern Ukraine as "our guys." I tried to remind him that this was 2014, and that he, a Kazakhstani citizen, had no legitimate claim to any of the fighters in Ukraine.
It did not matter, though. Because, for a certain sector of the post-Soviet populace, 1991 never happened. For this group, nostalgic for the Soviet Union, the men in eastern Ukraine are rebels and freedom fighters, rather than the Russian-led, Russian-backed marauders that the West and the Ukrainian government recognizes them to be.
But the West should not help them out by labeling them as "Ukrainian rebels." Only a handful of these men are Ukrainian. And given their either mercenary or imperial motivations, they are closer to invaders by definition than "rebels." Following on the heels of a contaminated, compromised crash investigation into MH17, calling them what they really are is the least we can do.
Casey Michel is a Bishkek-based journalist and a graduate student at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute.
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