“Local protests in Moscow are nowhere near as threatening as tens of thousands of Russian troops massing along a border less than 500 km away.”
During the past few weeks I have relaxed somewhat. The Ukrainian Presidential election ran smoothly; President Poroshenko spoke brilliantly at the Rada on the occasion of his inauguration; news of the anti-terrorist operation in the eastern regions of Ukraine seemed to show that the ring around the Russian mercenaries was closing. So, I decided (like many in Kyiv), to return to my daily routine for a while. But Saturday’s downing of a military transport aircraft near Luhansk airport with 49 servicemen onboard, followed by today’s gas supply shut off (predictable, but nevertheless unpleasant), and news of renewed Russian troop movements on Ukraine’s eastern borders have got me worried again.
Trying to predict the future is a bad idea. I have been ribbed by several of my readers for having wrongly predicted imminent Russian invasion before. I am not a psychologist, nor a psychotherapist – I don’t know what Putin is planning to do during the next couple of days/weeks. And it would seem that much depends on the decisions of this one man. Speculation as to his true motives abounds: amassing economic power (including personal wealth), expressing Russian nationalism (which could mean anything from Dugin-style Eurasianism to a more modest concern for Russian-speakers in the “near-abroad”), maintaining authoritarianism (i.e. fear of losing power due to a revolutionary demonstration effect). Putin’s motives are likely a combination of some or all of the above. Whatever the real state of affairs inside his head, the aggressive nature of the policies and actions of the Kremlin is becoming increasingly worrying: a local war in the Donbas has already started, and its spread seems increasingly inevitable.
I understand from my informal contacts with western diplomats in Kyiv (including military attaches) that western governments are baffled by Russia. Given that Ukraine’s National Security Council met for over 5 hours today, I am relatively confident that the same goes for the Poroshenko administration. The Ukrainian and EU political establishments simply don’t know how to respond to the Kremlin; their mode of thought is primarily reactive rather than proactive; they fear the consequences of making a wrong move as much as those resulting from doing nothing. All three of these observations indicate danger – grave danger not only to Ukraine, but to the world.
So what to do? I will deliberately avoid prediction, but as someone who has some background in social sciences, I’ll venture to provide some policy advice.
I have called for this previously, and I am convinced that this continues to be the correct move by western countries with respect to ongoing Russian aggression, and persistent expansionist policies of the Kremlin: NATO (or a several countries belonging to the alliance) should declare the territory of Ukraine to be a “no-fly zone”. American, Canadian, British, Polish, and German aircraft should be patrolling the skies over Ukraine on a regular basis. Any and all surface-to-air weapons usage (e.g. the shooting down of transport aircraft by mobile “Stinger-style” missiles, as occurred early Saturday morning in the vicinity of Luhansk airport) is to be deemed an act of aggression worthy of a military response from the air. No NATO boots on the ground, but plenty of air support – this is what Ukraine really needs right now.
As for domestic action (i.e. by the Poroshenko administration), clearly the eastern border needs to be closed (the idea proposed by Dnipropetrovsk governor Ihor Kolomoyskyy – to build a chain-link fence and defensive ditches all along the land border between Ukraine and Russia was approved today by the National Security Council), the forces engaged in the anti-terrorist operation in the eastern regions need to be better equipped (e.g. with flak jackets and Kevlar helmets), and suspected moles within the Ukrainian Armed Forces, Internal Affairs Ministry, Security Service, and Border Guard Service need to be rooted out, prosecuted, and publicly punished. But Ukraine’s authorities know all of this. What they seem not to know is that in parallel with all of the above, they are obliged to regularly inform the public of their actions. President Poroshenko should be addressing the nation on a daily basis! This need not be more than a 3 minute short speech, but it needs to be done…
Furthermore, the President need not fear making a mistake during these broadcasts. The Ukrainian public has given Mr. Poroshenko the benefit of a great deal of doubt, and people trust their leader – for the moment. If silence continues, that trust will wane. In today’s Ukraine people understand that the President is human, and will make mistakes. If he is honest in having made them, he will maintain his support. If not, he will lose the battle for hearts and minds very soon. And then the country will truly descend into anarchy…
Russian propaganda is working intensely both in Ukraine and abroad. I was shocked on Sunday, when I turned on Al Jazeera: instead of reporting on the downing of the military transport near Luhansk (the story that has dominated Ukraine’s news broadcast for the past 3 days), the report on Ukraine focused on Russian foreign minister Lavrov’s “outrage” at the Russian embassy in Kyiv having been pelted with eggs the previous day, and his disappointment with his Ukrainian counterpart having called Russia’s President an insulting name during the demonstration. The fact that Acting Foreign Minister Deshchytsia’s comments (he called Putin a “dickhead” – to paraphrase the extremely popular phrase currently circulating throughout Ukraine: “Putin – khuylo!”) were aimed at defusing the emotions of the demonstrators, and in fact may have contributed to the Russian embassy NOT being stormed by the angry mob on Saturday evening, was not mentioned during the Al Jazeera broadcast. Thankfully, this fact was publicly noted by US Ambassador Pyatt today, who called Mr. Deshchytsia a “skilled diplomat” in his Twitter.
Tonight however, while watching CNN’s interpretation of the current gas dispute between Kyiv and Moscow, it became clear to me that the western press responds more favorably to Kremlin spin doctors than to diplomats on the ground. Business page headlines in the English-language newspapers on Tuesday will echo the top story of the Financial times: “Russia cuts off the gas to Ukraine”. This is FALSE!!! A full 55% of Russia’s gas exports flow through a pipleline network that crosses Ukrainian territory. This gas continues to flow. Do the Europeans trust that the Ukrainians will not siphon off some of the EU-bound gas for their own use? Clearly the Kremlin will accuse Kyiv of doing just that during the coming days, but I’m confident the EU will (quietly?) support Ukraine when official denials are issued by Kyiv. Which side will the western press believe?
Few now doubt the intensity of Russian efforts in the global information war. And the domestic Ukrainian front is not immune either. Several stories appeared on Ukrainian websites today claiming that the IL-76 disaster in Luhansk on Saturday was actually caused by inept Ukrainian troops. Similarly, Russian websites have reported artillery barrages (supposedly launched by Ukrainian forces) being aimed at residential buildings in Kramatorsk (Donetsk region). Apparently, the fact that pro-Russian militants have actually admitted to shooting down the Ukrainian military transport plane on Saturday with Russian-supplied missiles, and that several pro-Russian fighters have posted photos of their Russian-supplied mobile “Grad” missile launchers on their social media pages, is no obstacle for Kremlin spin doctors. In fact, they’ve dreamed up a quasi-credible conspiracy theory: apparently (according to this fairytale), Ukraine’s post-revolutionary government is in such deep economic crisis that its only chance of political survival is to provoke a full-scale Russian invasion of the east. According to this fantasy, PM Yatseniuk and President Poroshenko have decided that the only way that they will be able to survive an “imminent” repeat of the Maidan revolution (sparked by rising unemployment, a plummeting currency, unrest in the eastern regions, a stagnating economy, and rising energy prices) is to “artificially” blame the country’s woes on Russia. For this reason, it is (apparently) in the interests of Kyiv to provoke the Kremlin…
To some (like me) this kind of rhetoric is cause for grave concern. Today, the self-proclaimed “defense minister” of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic, Igor Girkin (aka Strelkov) issued a televised statement during which he openly called for Russian invasion. Apparently the pro-Russian insurgency is just too weak to counter the onslaught of Ukraine’s Armed Forces and Interior Ministry troops. Ominously (or perhaps as an encouragement to Strelkov – himself a former Russian intelligence officer) large scale troop movements on the Russian side of the border were reported today by Ukrainian media. If these reports are confirmed by NATO spy satellite imagery, I’ll be extremely nervous…
Mr. Putin seems to enjoy following Stalin’s example: he appears to believe in the significance of historical events. Hitler attacked Ukraine (at that time the western USSR) on 22 June 1941. I don’t mean to be superstitious, but coincidence seems to be vociferous:
20 January – violence suddenly erupts in Kyiv on Hrushevskoho St. (many believe this was provoked artificially)
22 February – Yanukovych fleas Ukraine
21 March – Putin officially annexes Crimea to the Russian Federation
23 April – Lavrov publicly admits for the first time that Russian troops are massing on the Ukrainian border in preparation for a possible invasion
22 May – the anti-terrorist operation in Ukraine’s Donbas results in its first large-scale casualties – 8 servicemen killed in battle with pro-Russian fighters near Volnovakha (Donetsk oblast).
Lately, each time the date on the calendar approaches the “20” mark, my wife and I start getting nervous. And the fact that this month, the date coincides with an anniversary of invasion does nothing to alleviate our superstitions.
Several days ago I reported that three Russian T-90 tanks (modernized T-72’s) had crossed the Ukrainian border from Russia on their way to Slavyansk. It has now become clear that these were actually old T-64 tanks that had (apparently) been stolen from an arms dump in Russian-occupied Crimea, and then transported by ship to Rostov-on-Don oblast before crossing the land border back into Ukraine. I apologize for reporting incorrect information.
An interesting interpretation of this event was circulated over the weekend, in the form of a livejournal post authored by Andrey Ilarionov – a former Putin advisor, who has been a militant supporter of Ukraine during/since the Maidan. According to his analysis of the press reports emanating from the Kremlin on 12 June, after it became public that Russian tanks had rolled across the Ukrainian border, President Putin called President Poroshenko (not vice versa!). Official reaction to this incident was subdued on all sides: the Kyiv government issued a statement expressing its concern as to “the unacceptable situation when the state border between Russia and Ukraine had been crossed by tanks”. No effort was made to destroy the tanks enroute – in fact, they seem to have simply run out of gas before reaching Slavyansk (incidentally, they seem to also have taken a wrong turn towards Makiyivka and Donetsk rather than driving along the more direct, though less populated route). All of this seems very strange…
Ilarionov interprets this event as a signal of Putin having lost at least some measure of his formerly total control over the militants in eastern Ukraine and western Rostov oblast (Russia). According to this version, the purpose of the phone call from the Kremlin was to allay any possible fears on the Ukrainian side as to the tanks representing a real Russian invasion force. However, the fighters in the Donbas continue to receive arms and equipment from Russia – not to mention mercenary reinforcements (primarily battle-scarred fighters from the northern Caucasus). Could it be possible that these men and materiel are being paid for by Yanukovych (with cash stolen from Ukraine)? Today, the “Levey Bereg” news site posted a recording of an apparently tapped telephone conversation between Viktor Yanukovych Jr. and the President of Belarus during which a voice very similar to the former President’s son’s is identified as asking Lukashenko whether he would agree to “accept his father as a guest for a time if this should become necessary.” Could Yanukovych be outstaying his welcome in Russia?
Certainly, many in Ukraine would like to believe that Putin’s actions in eastern Ukraine represent the beginning of the end of his regime. At the same time, most analysts believe Putin’s authoritarianism in Russia to be much stronger and more effective than the power once exercised by Yanukovych in Ukraine. However, there is little doubt that Russia has massive corruption problems, and Ukraine’s former President certainly knows how to buy off low-level officials (including police, border guards, tax officials, etc.). The economic situation and the political culture of Rostov-on-Don is practically identical to Yanukovych’s native Donbas…
If I were Putin, and I had unleashed (sponsored and fomented) an insurgency that I was gradually losing control over, what would I do? Firstly, I would probably have Yanukovych killed. Secondly, I would divert attention from the local skirmishes in the Donbas by inciting a more substantial, continental conflict (i.e. apply the “gas weapon”). Thirdly, I would quietly move loyal troops into an area near the Ukrainian border in order to be able to control any cross-border skirmishes or unrestrained violence caused by mercenaries retreating to Russia. If the Ukrainian army is unable to destroy the mercenary forces in the Donbas, Russian forces will be close by, and could be inserted as “peace-keepers” at a moment’s notice. June 22 seems like a good date, but July 20 could be just as suitable…
On the other hand Mr. Putin, the above steps need to be taken quickly, for your authoritarian regime may not survive delay! Regardless of your supposedly full control over Russia’s media, dissent and protest against the Kremlin’s policies in Ukraine is spreading through the Russian internet. On Sunday, after the downing of the transport aircraft in Luhansk by Russian-supplied missiles, a makeshift memorial was set up by Muscovites in front of the Ukrainian embassy in the Russian capital. Ukrainian social media and news broadcasts have shown video clips of ordinary Muscovites laying flowers to the fallen and begging Ukrainians for forgiveness for the atrocity obviously financed by their national leadership. Other brave Russians unfurled a banner in Moscow on Sunday calling for “Death to Kremlinite occupiers” (Smert kremlyovskim okupantam”). The video clip of their demonstration shows the time span between the banner first being unfurled, and arrests commencing lasting less than 3 minutes. Nevertheless, these brave souls are standing up to Mr. Putin, and that must seem threatening (at least a little)…
However, local protests in Moscow are nowhere near as threatening as tens of thousands of Russian troops massing along a border less than 500 km away.
God help us!