Is an invasion of eastern Ukraine by Russian troops imminent? This seems to be the question on everyone’s mind tonight. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper alluded to such a possibility during his press conference with Ukrainian PM Yatseniuk in Kyiv today. Yesterday, the US Embassy in Kyiv issued an updated travel warning: “The Department of State warns U.S. citizens to defer all non-essential travel to Ukraine and to defer all travel to the Crimean Peninsula and eastern regions of Kharkiv, Donetsk and Lugansk due to the presence of Russian military forces in the Crimean Peninsula, and in Russia near the Ukrainian border.”
I have been guilty of wrongly predicting an imminent invasion before, so I will not fall into the same trap twice. Previously, my fear was based on a scenario (that I believe was planned and foiled) involving the deligitimization of Kyiv’s post-revolutionary government via a court ruling scheduled for March 19; the case was ruled to be outside of the High Administrative Court’s jurisdiction, and therefore dismissed. Regardless of questions that I may have as to the real independence of the court (prima fascae it would seem that the decision was politically motivated rather than grounded in law), in this case I was relieved by the ruling.
Tonight, the mood in Kyiv is calmer than it was several days ago. At the same time, the news reports emanating from Crimea are angering many. Several Ukrainian naval vessels and military bases have already been stormed by Russian forces, and practically all Ukrainian military installations have been surrounded with ultimatums issued to troops to surrender or face attack. The patience of the public, and its support for the government’s policy of restraint in the face of open Russian aggression, are being strained by what are now being seen as signs of weakness, indicisiveness, and betrayal.
Events in Crimea are clearly tragic, but the question remains: will Putin continue or stop? I answer this question with the following: eventually – yes; short-term – no. By “short-term – no” I mean that the Kremlin will likely not move troops into Ukraine during the next 3-4 weeks. However, sabotaging the Ukrainian Presidential election scheduled for May 25 (in my opinion) remains a high priority for Putin, and this eventuality needs to be prepared for. I will deal with the “May scenario” at the end of this post, but first some words as to why I believe Russia will not invade mainland Ukraine in March and during the first half of April.
Thanks to the vigilance of Ukraine’s Security Service, armed subversives in Odesa, and the leader of the “Narodnoe Opolcheniye” pro-Russian paramilitaries in Donetsk, were arrested today. It would seem that Putin’s plans to instigate social unrest in Ukraine’s southern and eastern regions during the next few days have been partially foiled. The pro-Russia demonstration in Kharkiv gathered a mere 300-500 participants today. In Donetsk 2-3 thousand pro-Russia demonstrators gathered, but a similar number of Ukraine supporters also came out. Without a semblance of local support, Putin is unlikely to try to move forces across the border. After-all, he justified intervention in Crimea on the basis of protecting the interests of Russian-speakers and compatriots; if no such need for protection can be visibly demonstrated, the Russian President will have no excuse to invade. One could argue that Putin needs no credible excuse, but without even an incredible one, I think the likelihood of invasion is low. Much to the Kremlin’s chagrin, the majority of ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers in Ukraine’s east (not to mention the ethnic Ukrainian majority of the population) have shown that they simply do not want to be part of Russia.
At this point, having achieved his interim goal of annexing Crimea, Putin needs to take stock of what he has “accomplished” since beginning his intervention in Ukraine on Feb 27. It would seem that much has gone wrong:
1) The Ukrainian military in Crimea did not succumb to violence (despite troops being repeatedly provoked), and instead surrendered their positions in protest, but without active fighting that would have provoked a “Ossetia scenario” according to which Russian troops were to have invaded in apparent self-defense
2) The Russian invasion of Crimea was not greeted as a “liberation” by the population of Ukraine’s eastern and southern regions; they did not proclaim their desire for increased autonomy en masse, as Putin may have expected
3) The international community did not abandon Ukraine, and indeed Ukraine achieved a massive diplomatic victory in the UN and beyond with Russian aggression being universally condemned; the West has now imposed unprecedented economic sanctions against Russia, and eventually these will hurt Putin.
4) The Kremlin’s investments in communication channels designed to propagate its version of events (e.g. Russia Today) initially provided significant gains in the information war, but Ukraine’s diaspora resources, and the moral authority resulting from its government’s policy of restraint, have gradually leveled the initial Russian advantage in the West, and even (to a very limited extent) within Russia.
The above are likely to lead to a reevaluation of the Kremlin’s strategy in Ukraine. On the Ukrainian side, preparations for armed conflict on the mainland are ongoing. Last week, Ukraine’s Parliament passed a mobilization law, according to which all able bodied personnel who have previously served in the armed forces (i.e. experienced reserves) are to be called back within 45 days. The Secretary of the National Security Council has assured the public that this mobilization will be much quicker. The Parliament also passed changes to the state budget allocating an additional 7 billion UAH (approx. 800 million USD) to the military – according to Finance Minister Shlapak, these funds will be used to mobilize and train an additional 43 900 reservists. He also assured Parliament that regardless of deficits or other budget issues, funding for the military would be found under any circumstances.
To be honest, the Ukrainian Armed Forces are in a sorry state. According to reports from young men called up in the context of the mobilization law, they have been asked to report for training with their own food and sleeping bags. News reports commonly show local residents in Ukraine’s eastern regions bringing food and supplies to army camps quickly established after mobile forces were deployed there from their home bases this week. Although on paper the Ukrainian army seems to possess sufficient tanks, artillery and weapons to be able to withstand a frontal attack (given that Russia, which has military commitments in other regions, could only afford to deploy 25-30% of its forces in Ukraine in the event of invasion), the state of this equipment and the level of training of military personnel leaves much to be desired. Many in the US have scoffed at Obama’s proposal to provide ready-to-eat-meals to Ukraine as a support measure, but this offer may not be as laughable as would seem at first glance. Gas and diesel for tanks and APC’s is also required – as shown by last week’s gracious gesture from Ukraine’s third richest oligarch (and newly appointed governor of Dnipropetrovsk oblast) Ihor Kolomoyskiy, who sponsored the purchase of fuel for all Ukrainian forces stationed in Dnipropetrovsk and Zaporizhzhya.
It would seem that this week’s annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation has finally cured the “ostrich syndrome” that has been plaguing many of my Ukrainian friends of late. During the past few weeks, whenever I have mentioned the prospects of a Russian invasion of mainland Ukraine, beyond Crimea, or have mentioned the possibility of casualties in Kyiv, many have simply refused to listen. My friends would end the conversation with “that’s just too awful to even think about”, and would (so I thought) stick their proverbial heads in the sand, hoping the danger will go away. The other day, a friend of mine who runs regional operations for a major Ukrainian bank, sensing my exasperation, corrected me: apparently, when an ostrich feels threatened, it does not actually stick its head in the sand; it freezes, lowers its head, and waits until the right moment to viciously fight back. At some point during this past week, the “right moment” seems to have arrived: Ukrainians have commenced rapid preparations to viciously fight back.
In January, at the height of the stand-off in Kyiv between protesters and the Yanukovych regime, the running joke on Maidan sounded something like this: “it takes an average Ukrainian man 3 months to put up a shelf in his bathroom, but 3 hours to build an impenetrable barricade.” There’s something to be said for Cossack genes I guess: suffer serfdom patiently, but once it’s time to fight, the “ostrich” raises its head and (according to Wikipedia) “kicks forward with its powerful feet, armed with long claws, which are capable of disemboweling or killing a person with a single blow”. I’m not suggesting a single blow will be enough to stop Russian aggression when it comes, but I truly believe Putin may be in for a surprise once his troops cross the border. Unlike in Crimea, if an attack comes from the east, restraint will not be the policy of the day.
But will Putin actually attack? I have written previously about my take on Putin’s motives with respect to Ukraine: they are not geostrategic or economic, but rather – ideological. In my opinion, the master of the Kremlin is motivated by a combination of expansionist (imperialistic) nationalism and a deeply rooted fear (irrational aversion) of Ukraine’s Maidan, and the direct democracy that it represents. On the one hand, Putin is a righteous imperialist (in the sense of Rudyard Kipling), driven by a messianic vision of himself as the “gatherer of Russian lands”, crusader against “western degeneracy”, propagator of Eurasian values rooted in Orthodoxy and Russian exceptionalism (see the writings of Alexander Dugin for more details on this ideology). On the other hand, Putin sees his “third Rome” (and his own authoritarian power structure) threatened by the spread eastward of globalism, NATO, the EU, US cultural hegemony, and of the rights based discourse that Kyiv’s Maidan embodies. Staging a “little war” has been a strategy that Putin has used in the past to prop up his popularity at home, and given both ongoing and foreseen problems in the Russian economy (the ruble devalued by 10% in January, Iranian oil became available to world markets in February), the time for a prop-up was probably right. Ukraine was/is a logical target for such a popularity stunt both because it is justifiable based on a historical myth that has been propagated in Russia for generations, and because the Ukrainian revolution was extensively demeaned by the Russian media during the previous 3 months.
Given such motivations, it is unlikely that economic sanctions and political isolation – no matter how painful or drastic – will stop the Kremlin. Indeed, sanctions may provide a convenient excuse for Putin to justify economic problems that are sure to emerge during the coming months: using revived Soviet tactics, the Russian media will spin the story according to which citizens’ hardship has been caused by the imperialist West. Putin’s countrymen see him as righteous, and many Russians seem to be prepared to suffer for the sake of realizing his vision of their country’s “greatness”. The fact that this “greatness” is in fact a manipulative image that has been foisted upon them so as to maintain Putin’s hold on power is either not realized by the average Russian, or (worse) is realized and accepted.
I think it is important to understand that we are not just dealing with a mentally unstable dictator by the name of Vladimir Putin. Speeches made by Ambassador Churkov in the UN, my debate last Sunday on Al Jazeera’s “Inside Story” with former Russian diplomat Vyacheslav Matuzov, and the Facebook posts of Roman Kokorev – Russia’s official representative in the Council of Europe, all point to the fact that Putin’s Eurasian expansionist ideology enjoys significant support in the Russian elite. Putin’s popularity has soared in the aftermath of the Crimean annexation; on March 12, a letter of support for the Russian President’s Ukraine policy was signed by 85 prominent Russian musicians, artists, actors, and performers.
Now, let’s consider Russia’s plans. The following map was published in an article that argued that Putin’s interests in Ukraine are economic – driven by a desire to grab and control energy resources in Ukraine’s east and south. I am skeptical of this argument, but nevertheless, the map provides an excellent representation of the geography of the Kremlin’s appetites. Putin’s plan for the area shaded in Orange seems to involve creating an Abkhazia/TransDniestria styled buffer zone between the Russian Federation and the rest of Ukraine. This area is unlikely to be annexed to Russia. However, its existence as an unrecognized and unstable, nominally independent, political entity that separates Russia from “fascist Ukraine” (the term used by the Kremlin to describe Kyiv and the western regions) is clearly in Putin’s interests. It is this area that must become the focus of the Kyiv government’s defensive activities during the coming 4-6 weeks.
In less than 7 weeks, Russia and Ukraine will hold Victory Day celebrations – held on May 9 throughout the former Soviet Union (except the Baltic states). This year, the Kremlin is sure to make a big deal of the fact that 2014 is the 70th anniversary year of the liberation of Ukraine from Nazi forces (the last battle on Ukrainian soil occurred on 28 October 1944). Traditionally, orange and black commemorative “St. George ribbons” are worn on May 9 – the same ribbons that the pro-Russia demonstrators in Crimea and Ukraine’s eastern provinces have adopted as their symbol. It is likely therefore that the Victory Day celebrations will provide excellent television images to be used as a pretense to show mass support for “unity with Russia” in the eastern and southern oblasts – i.e. just the excuse that Putin will be looking for to move in.
Under these circumstances it is crucial, in my opinion, that the Kyiv government organize large scale demonstrations commemorating Victory Day as a distinctly Ukrainian celebration. Tanks and armored vehicles should be paraded through the main streets of Kyiv, Donetsk, Kharkiv and Odesa with marching bands, large numbers of soldiers, and veterans. Fly-by’s by military aircraft would add pomp to the ceremonies. These parades must fly the Ukrainian flag in immediate proximity to the Red Army standard. And to the distaste (perhaps) of western Ukrainians and Svoboda/Right Sector supporters, UPA (Ukrainian Insurgent Army) symbolism must be inconspicuous if present at all. The goal will be to demonstrate both strength, and an alternative (to the Kremlin’s) historical myth of Russian and Ukrainian unity “tied by blood”, with a presentation of WWII as a primarily Ukrainian war (as it was if one counts real casualties and deaths).
Although I realize the following will be controversial, I believe that this year’s Victory Day commemorations in Ukraine should be attended and supported by large delegations from Ukraine’s worldwide diaspora and by western political leaders. Make no mistake: the above is both a specific proposal and unofficial request.
A little more than 2 weeks after Victory Day (May 9), the post-revolutionary Ukrainian government has scheduled the first round of Presidential elections (May 25). Putin cannot afford to allow this election to take place, and will do everything possible to destabilize Ukraine’s eastern regions in the final days of the campaign so as to force a cancellation (or at least discreditation) of the vote. It would therefore be highly beneficial if a grand scale commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the “liberation” of Ukraine could be organized – with large numbers of ethnic Ukrainian international guests voicing their solidarity with Donetsk, Kharkiv, Luhansk and Odesa on this day. These cities should feel the full weight and support of the global Ukrainian community, and of Ukraine’s international partners.
I fully realize that my proposal is highly problematic. After-all, most Ukrainians residing abroad are (like me) descendants of western Ukrainian emigres for whom the advance of Soviet forces through Ukraine in 1944 was the catalyst for flight westward. However, for those who did not emigrate (and particularly for residents of Ukraine’s eastern and southern regions), the advance of the Red Army through Ukraine in 1944 is remembered as a heroic struggle for liberation. The fact that the army was commanded by Stalin was of secondary concern: the soldiers were fighting for their homes, their families, their land.
I have no doubt that this year, Putin’s propaganda machine will present the 1944 advance of the Red Army to the Polish border as a joint victory of Russia and Ukraine. It is Ukraine’s task to use this commemoration as an opportunity to both heal internal historical wounds, and to tie the people together in a common cause against an external enemy.
Given the above, I am particularly concerned by media reports tonight suggesting that Ukraine’s Minister of Culture (Yevhen Nyshchuk – the former “voice of Maidan”) has tabled a proposal to cancel the traditional May 1-2 state holidays, and to move the May 9 commemoration to May 8, simultaneously renaming the date into “Soviet atrocity memorial day”. A more divisive proposal in today’s political context would be difficult to imagine. And under the current circumstances, such ideas must not gain popular support. I’m afraid that if they do, Ukraine will lose its eastern and southern regions just as it has de facto lost Crimea.
I am often asked by my diaspora friends “how can we help Ukraine?” Well, here’s a very concrete idea: come celebrate Victory Day in Donetsk (and stay to observe the elections)! To some this proposal will sound a little crazy; to others – adventurous.