May 21 was a notable date: 3 months after Yanukovych’s flight from Kyiv, exactly 90 days after the massacre of the Heaven’s Hundred, and 6 months since the first Euromaidan protest. It should have been a day to remember and rebuild. At the very least, it should have been a day to calm one’s emotions. But then came May 22 – the bloodiest day since the beginning of hostilities in the Donbas: more than 20 Ukrainian servicemen killed (16 near the town of Volnovakha), and at least 40 injured; similar casualty figures were reported by the separatists’ side. Today, May 23, Ukraine’s Security Service (SBU) apparently foiled an attempt to falsify the results of the upcoming Presidential vote with a virus on the server of the Central Election Commission – good news! Meanwhile, Igor Bezler, a Russian Special Services officer, and commander of the terrorist bands in Donbas announced today that he had killed all of the fighters of the pro-Ukrainian “Donbas” volunteer brigade that he had taken prisoner this morning. The emotional rollercoaster continues…
To anyone who has any doubts: Ukraine is not “on the verge of war” – open war has begun. Until May 17 the hostilities resembled street protests with guns (except in Slovyansk). During the first half of May, the insurgency was limited to occupying government buildings, and conducting phony referenda. However, things suddenly changed when Rinat Akhmetov (Ukraine’s richest individual, and effective owner of the Donbas economy) finally openly declared his opposition to the separatists, and called upon his employees (numbering several hundred thousand) to publicly protest against the self-proclaimed “Donetsk Peoples’ Republic” by stopping work, and by sounding the horns of their cars at noon every day. Prior to Akhmetov’s televised statement, the anti-terrorist operation in Slovyansk and Kramatorsk was seemingly going well for Ukrainian forces, and the Kremlin had seemingly sent signals that it was prepared to de-escalate its aggression. After-all, Donbas separatists had apparently ignored Putin’s request to postpone their “referenda”, and western sanctions seemed to have had at least some effect on the Russian economy.
With the Kremlin sending signals that it may be cutting its losses in eastern Ukraine, Akhmetov finally made his choice, and ironically, this act seems to have been a catalyst for open hostilities. It is notable however, that Akhmetov’s televised statement is far from being “pro-Ukrainian”. Unlike Ukraine’s second richest business owner, Ihor Kolomoyskiy (the owner of Pryvat group, the leader of Ukraine’s Jewish Congress, and now the governor of Dnipropetrovsk oblast), Akhmetov has not adopted or promoted the symbols of the Ukrainian state, i.e. the blue & yellow flag and trident. The central shopping center building that Akhmetov owns in Kyiv (currently under renovations) has been draped in a massive Ukrainian flag, but this was done to cover anti-Akhmetov graffiti rather than as an act of willed patriotism. Worryingly, Akhmetov’s televised address on May 17 was filled with references to the Donbas, to “Donchany” (people of the Donbas), and although he condemned those who “carry guns on our streets”, and voiced protest against the actions of the self-proclaimed “republican government”, he did not openly support Kyiv.
In the wake of Akhmetov’s statement, the various groups of thugs who had called themselves separatists, but in fact had begun to fight among themselves for looting rights, presumably understood that their days may be numbered, and regrouped. With the Ukrainian state apparatus in the Donbas all but dismantled by Yanukovych (it would seem that this was done deliberately with Russian guidance), and corruption having rotted away anything that resembled a loyal police force in the region, the forces that have been ordered into Donetsk and Luhansk oblast to fight the separatists have been recruited primarily from western Ukraine (specifically, casualties during the last 3 days have been primarily from Volyn and Vinnytsia oblasts). Increasingly, people in the west and in Kyiv are beginning to ask themselves: why should our boys die for a Donbas that does not seem to want to fight for itself?
Indeed, I must admit to having allowed myself a heresy recently. Last week, while preparing a presentation for Canadian election observers on the background to Sunday’s vote, I found myself feeling (almost) glad that both the Crimea and the Donbas are now effectively not part of Ukraine. Of course I wasn’t pleased about Ukraine having lost 20% of its population during the past 2 months, nor was/am I prepared to admit defeat “de jure”, but truth be told, I caught myself thinking that this country could in fact be better off in the long run without these two highly problematic (ethnically, linguistically, economically, etc.) regions. The argument in my head was the following: just as the population of Kyiv had made a conscious decision 3-4 months ago to be the capital of a free and independent Ukraine, so too must the inhabitants of every region of the country make such a conscious choice. If the Donbas does not want to be part of Ukraine, why should young men from other parts of the country be sent there to die to keep Ukraine whole?
The counter argument (of course) is that the population of Donbas is incapable of making an informed choice as to its future. Because the area has received its news either from Russian sources, or from media outlets controlled by the Yanukovych regime, the people of Donbas have been misinformed as to the Maidan, and (so this argument would have us believe) have not been allowed to develop their “natural” patriotic loyalty to Ukraine. Furthermore, the population of the east has been terrorized recently by heavily armed mercenaries and covert operatives from Russia, and asking the locals to openly resist such aggression without external help is not realistic. But such a portrayal of the Donbas is clearly paternalistic – after-all, didn’t the population of Kyiv resist Yanukovych? He had special force too! Didn’t people die on the Maidan for the sake of an idea? Is it not the epitome of snobbery and elitism to claim that the people of the Donbas are somehow incapable of making the same choice and sacrifices?
Having wrestled with this for a while, I now realize that my “heresy” was based on a category mistake: current events in the Donbas do not represent a continuation of the Maidan revolution. Donetsk cannot be compared to Kyiv in 2014 – a more accurate comparison would be Donetsk today vs. Kyiv in 2004. Then, during the Orange Revolution, a highly naïve and insecure (as to its own identity) population of Kyiv was prompted to rise up and declare itself a nation – encouraged by ideas, activists, and organized political groups from the western regions of Ukraine that had developed their own patriotic identity sooner, largely because the west of Ukraine had experienced a shorter period of Soviet rule. A process similar to that of Kyiv’s self-identification in 2004 seems to be ongoing now in the Donbas. The current catalyst of identity shift in the east is not a hijacked election (as in Orange Kyiv), but rather an invasion by Russian special forces. In this context, Putin’s aim is to convince the Donbas that it’s identity is more Russian than Ukrainian (just as his goal a decade ago was to convince Kyiv residents that his model of “managed democracy” was more attractive than its alternative). He failed then, and he’ll fail now. But if we accept this paradigm, Kyiv’s goal in this conflict must shift from extricating an invader to helping the eastern regions to self-identify as being part of a larger Ukrainian political nation. This will not happen overnight, and whether it is at all possible remains to be seen.
Effectively, the strategy of Kyiv in the Donbas must gradually shift from waging a “hot war” to exercising “soft power” eastward – i.e. the goal must be to shift the line that formerly defined Ukraine’s electoral geography to the Russian border (or at least as far eastward and southward as possible). From this perspective, the war in eastern Ukraine becomes a civilizational war (i.e. informational, economic, cultural). The conflict is less about whether the population wishes to be Ukrainian or Russian (or about what language they speak), but rather about whether the Donbas will be a part of Europe or will continue to be (post)Soviet. Putin has made it eminently clear that he wishes to reinstate the USSR, and during the economic summit in St. Petersburg today he reiterated that he views the conflict in eastern Ukraine in geo-political terms (as engaging the US and EU), rather than as a local/regional struggle for ethnic or linguistic self-determination.
Lack of clarity (or perhaps schizophrenia) is his weakness: on the one hand Mr. Putin claims to be motivated by a desire to protect the linguistic and cultural rights of ethnic Russians, but on the other hand he accuses the West (US & EU) of expansionism into what the Kremlin sees as the Russian sphere of influence (e.g. by enticing Ukraine into the Association agreement, into NATO, etc.). In Crimea, the ethnic argument seems to have proved an adequate justification for annexation. In the Donbas, this argument is not working, so Putin has now dropped the propaganda mask, and has shifted his discourse to geo-politics – a more realistic reflection of his policy motives.
The Russian threat to the EU (and to European civilization more broadly) has been eloquently presented by Timothy Snyder in his recent New Republic article entitled “The Battle in Ukraine Means Everything”, and was echoed in his recent lecture at Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. Professor Snyder’s point was clear: in order for the Kremlin’s “Eurasian” civilizational/imperial project to viably compete with the European project, the former must weaken the latter – thereby improving the attractiveness of the Russian/Eurasian alternative in relative terms. The Kremlin’s goal therefore is to divide Europe into its smaller nation-state components, and thereby to increase its own power over the continent. In this grand chess game, Ukraine represents a crucial pivot point and test for the EU: either Europe demonstrates unity in its response to Russian aggression in Ukraine, or it will succumb to the Kremlin’s tactic of divide and conquer, and eventually disintegrate. In this context, Alexander Dugin’s vision of a Eurasia “from Lisbon to Vladivostok” (ruled from Moscow) seems a not-so-distant possibility. Certainly it would serve the interests of the current Putin sponsored pan-European anti-Ukrainian coalition of far-right parties.
Today I was interviewed (yet again) by western journalists. Their standard question echoes what I am constantly asked by friends and acquaintances in Kyiv: when/how will this end? My answer: it won’t. Ukraine’s existence for the foreseeable future will resemble that of Israel – a state under permanent existential threat from a neighbor that does not recognize its right to exist. A quick look at the Russian internet, with its multiple posts of maps of “Novorosia”, “territories gifted to Ukraine throughout history”, and patently false reports of apparent violence and chaos in post-Maidan Kyiv leave little doubt – Putin may pull back his troops from the Ukrainian border for a while, but in the long term his objective is to destroy the Ukrainian nation-state, and possibly to threaten the EU thereafter.
In the short term, Putin is likely to sue for some sort of peace in eastern Ukraine. His ideal will be to try to “Daytonize” the country (i.e. to divide Ukraine into tiny, ungovernable, but nominally autonomous oblasts – along the Bosnian model), but failing this he will be propose that the UN dispatch a Russian-led peacekeeping force to establish a border between the Donetsk/Luhansk Peoples’ Republics and the rest of Ukraine. Will western powers allow Ukraine to be divided in such a way? Will the EU allow Russia to lead such a force – i.e. to effectively occupy the Donbas without annexing it formally (as the Kremlin has done in Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and TransDnistria)?
More importantly, in the medium term, will Kyiv be able to offer the Donbas a civilizational (economic and political) model that is sufficiently attractive for its citizens to choose to be Ukrainian? The region has deep economic problems, and in fact is dying (shrinking cities, loss-making coal mines, technologically backward metal works). At the same time, it has a distinct regional identity and pride that deserves respect. If western/central Ukrainians continue to be sent to this region to die for the ideal of Ukrainian territorial integrity, but with minimal sacrifice from the local population, increasing numbers of Ukrainians will begin to support the separation of Donbas – if for no other reason, than in order for the rest of the country to be able to get on with post-revolutionary and post-Yanukovych reconstruction.
On May 25 Ukraine will vote for a new President, and despite the self-evident and predictable final result, it seems unlikely that Petro Poroshenko will be able to gain over 50% support in the first round. A second round of voting will therefore be held on June 15. Meanwhile, Ukraine’s eastern regions will descend further into chaos, and the Russian-backed terrorists will continue to argue that Kyiv is ruled by a “junta” that is supposedly illegitimate. Unfortunately this means more instability, more violence, more deaths, and possibly even a risk of terrorist attacks (bombings) outside of the Donbas during the next 3 weeks.
Ruslana – the tiny but effervescent pop star who, over 3 months of freezing protests, transformed into the moral authority of Maidan – has called for the world to pray for Ukraine and for peace tomorrow: May 24 at noon Kyiv time. Whatever your beliefs or convictions, please join us in remembering those who have made the ultimate sacrifice, and for the many more (I fear) who will join them in the near future.
God help us!