Ukraine: What Putin Has Won

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Sandro Maddalena/NurPhoto/Corbis
Pro-Russian demonstrators in Donetsk, with a sign showing the ousted Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, who was born in the province of Donetsk and had been its governor prior to his presidency, March 30, 2014

Inside Ukraine, driving north from the Sea of Azov, an appendage of the Black Sea, along rutted country roads that snake parallel to the Russian border, we saw abandoned Ukrainian military encampments and the twisted remains of tanks, armored personnel carriers, and other vehicles. The Ukrainian cell phone signal died and our phones picked up the Russian one. Wherever we met rebel soldiers, they joked and chatted. They were relaxed. A cease-fire had been agreed on the day before, on September 5, and along the border there was no reason not to be relaxed. Ukrainian forces had been driven out of here, just as they had in other parts of eastern Ukraine.

When the conflict began this April, the Ukrainians rapidly lost territory to rebel anti-Kiev, pro-Russian forces. In the summer, better organized and reinforced with dozens of battalions of highly motivated volunteers, Ukrainian forces began to take back territory. Their most significant victory was on July 5 when the rebels retreated from their stronghold of Sloviansk. Then the Ukrainians began shelling the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk in an effort to drive the rebels out. But their shelling was so inaccurate that hundreds of civilians died, embittering huge numbers of ordinary people. If they were undecided before, many now decided that they hated the government in Kiev.

For the rebels the situation looked dire. And then as August turned to September everything changed again. The Ukrainians claimed that large numbers of regular Russian troops had been ordered to cross the border and help the rebels—over and above small Russian units, which they said had been here before, and volunteers. Reports of casualties began appearing in the Russian press but the Russian government vehemently denied that any of its regular soldiers had entered Ukraine or that artillery in Russia had shelled Ukraine.

I spoke with Sergei Baryshnikov, a pro-rebel political scientist in Donetsk. He is a member of the “parliament” of the Donetsk People’s Republic, or DNR as it is known, using its Russian acronym. The DNR, along with the neighboring Luhansk People’s Republic, which was also proclaimed in April, now make up what the rebels are calling Novorossiya (“New Russia”), which they say is a new state carved out of what Baryshnikov calls “the former Ukraine.” The name “New Russia” is meant to refer to the fact that this is what these lands were called in the eighteenth century when they were acquired by Russia.

Baryshnikov is one of the local ideologues of Novorossiya. When I asked him if there were Russian soldiers here, he replied enthusiastically, “Yes, thousands!” Then, presumably remembering that he should be on message, he said that none of them were regular soldiers. When I asked him, however, if there were regular Russian soldiers who had “volunteered” to come, he said that this was the case.

These troops, who arrived in the second half of August, completely changed the military situation. The Ukrainians were driven out of the border areas of both the Luhansk and Donetsk regions and also of areas on the Sea of Azov. The most crushing and symbolic of defeats came at Ilovaysk, where Ukrainian volunteer battalions were also driven out. They thought that they had made a deal to evacuate but in fact they and other retreating Ukrainian fighters were ambushed in several places. Along a sixteen-mile stretch of road from Ilovaysk to Novokaterinivka I counted sixty-eight military and other vehicles that had been destroyed. In Novokaterinivka the body of a Ukrainian soldier blasted from his tank hung on high-voltage electric cables.

It was not surprising, then, that Petro Poroshenko, the Ukrainian president, decided to accept a cease-fire on September 5. But the agreement on principles is extremely vague, and a few days and some serious violations later, it was not clear if it would hold. However, a visitor could feel that one chapter in the story of the war was ending and a new one was about to begin. Either war would start anew with a big rebel offensive or a political process would begin that would end in some form of settlement.

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Mike King

If the war starts again, we know what the rebels and their Russian backers want. Baryshnikov, who was wearing a lapel pin of Novorossiya’s flag, a variation on an old Russian imperial flag of yellow, white, and black, explained that Novorossiya would encompass all of the southeast of Ukraine, as far west as Transnistria, a breakaway part of Moldova that is funded by Russia and defended by Russian troops. If this ever happens, what is left of Ukraine would have lost its entire Black Sea coast; Crimea, which has already been annexed to Russia, would be connected to Russia by land, which it is not now; and the historic port of Odessa would be lost to Ukraine as well.

“Ukrainians,” said Baryshnikov, “are an artificially created nation, not like the French or Russians.” Creating Novorossiya, he conceded, was going to be hard, both militarily and politically, but he and his colleagues were doing their best to spread the word. Novorossiya, he explained, encompassed former Russian imperial territories that would first be “liberated” and “then become part of the Russian Federation.” The leading ideologist of this cause is Aleksandr Dugin, a proponent of a Russian Eurasian empire, run from Moscow, who used to be a marginal figure in Russian extreme nationalist politics but is no longer. “He is our friend,” said Baryshnikov. “I really appreciate him.”

Ask ordinary people in the territories controlled by the rebels what they want and you get a dozen different answers. They are confused. If they have come under Ukrainian shelling they are angry. Some want independence, some want to be part of Russia, and some want autonomy within Ukraine. Those who support Ukraine are too scared to talk. At Uspenka, at the rebel-controlled border crossing with Russia, I met Evgeny, a forty-two-year-old from Donetsk who acquired much military experience during his time in the French Foreign Legion. On the border the Ukrainian flag has been replaced by that of the Don Cossacks, whose traditions are shared on both sides.

Evgeny said that this was a “war of ideologies,” between a “Russian world” fighting for its Orthodox, thousand-year-old traditions and a Western world that no longer believed in families with a mother and a father. This was a reference to gay rights, which the Russian media have presented as an evil to be suffered in Ukraine if it makes common cause with the West. In his mind the struggle was to create a new state that would be “one of the people, not one of the oligarchs”—both from the east and west of Ukraine—who, he said, had plundered the country since independence in 1991. Last winter’s revolution on the Maidan, he said, had succeeded only in transferring power from the biggest oligarch in the east to the biggest oligarch from another part of Ukraine—a typical oversimplification.

If war does not resume in earnest, and if a political process starts, it is clear that Ukraine will lose, in some form or other. Whatever government emerges in the territories controlled by the rebels will be hostile to Kiev and will look to Moscow and Vladimir Putin for its future. Quite possibly the east will come to resemble a hybrid version of Transnistria, the Russian-controlled territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia, and the largely dysfunctional state of Bosnia-Herzegovina, which is divided into two. Novorossiya today is small compared to the ambitions of its leaders, so maybe, with Russian backing, they will decide to try to wrench more territory away from Ukraine.

The problem for Baryshnikov and his colleagues is that while there is support for the rebels in the areas they control, there is much less the further away you get from them. The city of Mariupol on the Sea of Azov is very divided. And in Sloviansk, the former rebel stronghold—a town of nearly 130,000 people before the war—Ukrainian soldiers walk about without fear just as rebels did before. Many people are unhappy to see them back but many are pleased they have returned. What they fear is that the rebels and their Russian backers will soon launch an offensive to recapture the town. In that sense we can see that the war is both between states and also a civil war. In Novoselydivka, when I bought grapes by the side of the road from Nadia, a seventy-seven-year-old woman, she said that “both sides” were Ukrainians and everything had been okay here “until Russia started bothering us.”

In Sloviansk I went to see Viktoria, who is twenty-eight years old and whom I had met when the town was under rebel control. I asked her what had happened to all the rebel locals who had manned the checkpoint near her flat. They had all run away, she said. I can well believe that. On September 8, Amnesty International accused the Ukrainian Aidar volunteer battalion of being “involved in widespread abuses, including abductions, unlawful detention, ill-treatment, theft, extortion, and possible executions.” They have not been operating in Sloviansk but it would not be surprising if such practices turn out to be widespread. In Mariupol, the Azov battalion, which has a major part defending the town, displays a neo-Nazi symbol for its insignia.

Meanwhile, in the hall of the Sloviansk city administration building there is a suggestion box. In it people drop notes denouncing neighbors who helped the rebels. However, a policeman there told me that more than 80 percent of the denunciations were from people who had disputes with their neighbors and wanted to get them into trouble—a sign of the nasty undercurrents in the town.

In Sloviansk’s main square there is a statue of Lenin, under which rebel leaders had in the spring made fiery speeches denouncing what they called the “fascist junta” in Kiev. Now the statue sports a Ukrainian flag that someone has tied around Lenin’s neck. Children still take rides on the ponies in the square and life goes on. But, Ludmila, age fifty, who was selling pressed-flower pictures, told me she was worried. She supports Ukraine and had fled when the rebels controlled the town. Now, she said she had her “suitcase ready,” in case they came back. One way or another, they will certainly try.

—Donetsk, Ukraine, September 11, 2014