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The Battle for Ukraine

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Yannis Behrakis/Reuters
Local miners at a rally in support of the Donetsk People’s Republic with a banner showing a miner smashing a swastika in the color of Ukraine’s flag, May 28, 2014

On May 29 the bodies of more than thirty men killed fighting Ukrainians on the outskirts of Donetsk were loaded into a truck and sent home to Russia. The truck, on which a red cross had been hastily painted and which normally delivers chilled food, said on the side: “Fresh produce, to serve you better.” Four days earlier Petro Poroshenko had been elected president of Ukraine by a crushing margin. Both events marked the beginning of a new chapter in the story of the battle for Ukraine.

On the one hand it was now clear to everyone that after failing to secure the territory themselves, the eastern Ukrainian separatist rebels were now receiving serious help in the form of militiamen from Russia. They were happy to boast about this. Some of the Russians were from Chechnya, some were Ossetians, and none, we can assume, would have been able to cross the border without help from the Kremlin. On arrival in the center of Donetsk, they had fired triumphant volleys of gunfire into the air. No one expected that a large number of them would promptly be killed by the Ukrainian military when they moved to secure Sergei Prokofiev Airport in Donetsk.

With a new president elected on May 25, Ukraine should be beginning to move out of its period of postrevolutionary chaos, but the prospects are not clear. When I met policymakers and analysts in Washington a few days later, they all asked me if I could see an end to the conflict and if there was reason to believe that, in the near future, something would happen that would lead to some sort of deal being struck so that the conflict would end.

My answer was simply “No.” To borrow a phrase from the name of the book by Samantha Power, Ukraine is the new problem from hell, and it is not going away so that everyone else can have an easier life in which they don’t have to make hard, risky, and unpleasant decisions.

1.

A few days before the fight at Donetsk’s airport I left from there for Kiev. On the way to the airport I asked the driver if he intended or even wanted to vote in the presidential election. At this he became so agitated that he took his hands off the wheel. All Ukrainian politicians, he said, were only interested in money—this he demonstrated by miming the action of milking a cow. Every member of the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s parliament, should be shot. As Sergei Prokofiev Airport came into view, he demonstrated this with a graphic machine-gunning action.

I think it is fair to say that the driver’s view is fairly typical, although it is usually expressed in less trenchant terms. After all, as Tetiana Sylina, a well-known journalist in Kiev, put it to me, the corruption of her country’s politicians over the past two decades has not been normal. It has been “bulimic.”

In the event, more than likely, the taxi driver was not allowed to express his opinion at the polls anyway because the rebels in Donetsk and Luhansk who have seized power and declared independence said that no vote would be allowed there, as Ukraine was now a foreign country. Election officials and party volunteers in the two regions were intimidated and threatened, and most people there, and of course in Crimea, annexed by Russia in March, were thus unable to vote. We still don’t know their political inclinations with any assurance, although many (but still an unknown number) did vote in a referendum on independence from Ukraine on May 11.

On the evening before the presidential election I saw something happening in the park by the university in the center of Kiev. It turned out to be a large group of young people salsa dancing and just having fun. There I met Valeria, who is twenty-three. She told me that the next day she would vote for Poroshenko for president. Like many people I met she said she would vote for him not because she liked him but because she regarded him as the least bad candidate. Poroshenko runs a big confectionary business called Roshen and, according to Forbes, is worth some $1 billion. Surely, I asked her and others, people had not braved subzero temperatures on the Maidan (the square where the revolution had taken place) for months and risked death there just for another oligarch to come to power?

Valeria echoed the views of many others when she told me that now, unlike after the Orange Revolution of 2004, no one was under the illusion that Ukraine’s politicians would still work in the interests of the people if the people ever let up their pressure on the government. “I was not interested in politics before,” she said. Prior to the Maidan demonstrations, she was like many in thinking that “if everything is okay at home, then I am not concerned.” Now she and her friends “had understood that we can’t live like this.” I kept hearing in Kiev that everything had changed with the opposition of the Maidan, and that nothing would ever be the same again. But whether that is really the case is far from clear. Not all of the omens are good.

Poroshenko, who is forty-eight years old, is not a new face. He is a shrewd political operator, has been a government minister twice, and owns a television station that supported the Maidan demonstrations this winter and, of course, his presidential bid. However, although he is a billionaire, there is one big reason why most Ukrainians don’t see him in the same light as the country’s other oligarchs, many of whom wield a lot of political power. The difference is that he created his huge Roshen chocolate company on his own. Unlike the others he did not become extraordinarily rich by grabbing former state industries in the chaotic 1990s and then making even more money through public procurement contracts skewed in their favor.

So Poroshenko, who won the election for president without the need for a runoff, by getting 54.7 percent of the votes, has an advantage based on his reputation. But still, the interim government has turned to several oligarchs, like Ihor Kolomoyskyi in Dnipropetrovsk, giving them governorships in an effort to mobilize them and their money to stem support for separatism. In the long run such policies embody a contradiction. Most Ukrainians, and especially those who protested on the Maidan, want a modern European state, not one in which power is used undemocratically by men who wield it like feudal barons. That, however, is not a problem for today but rather the day after tomorrow.

In the short term Poroshenko has to take back power and territory lost in the east and guard his back in Kiev. The latter promises to be a bitter and time-consuming struggle. Ukraine’s parliament was elected in October 2012 but is now utterly unrepresentative. It would be logical therefore for a new general election to be held as soon as possible. However, Poroshenko has no party of his own. Following last winter’s revolution he made a deal with Vitali Klitschko, the former boxing champion turned politician. Dr. Ironfist, as the boxer used to be called, would renounce his bid for the presidency and throw his support and party machine behind Poroshenko. Klitschko then scaled down his ambitions and was elected mayor of Kiev on May 25. As things stand today, however, to be able to rule effectively, Poroshenko must either create his own party, which would take time, or, to use the word of one party insider, he must “devour” Klitschko’s party, which he has not done yet.

One of the first acts of parliament after the revolution of last February was to curb the power of the president. This means that Poroshenko cannot simply dissolve parliament when he sees fit or just appoint a new government. As most of the parliament’s members are likely to be tossed out in the next election, many might now be susceptible to a call by Yulia Tymoshenko to rally behind her and make her prime minster.

Tymoshenko, an oligarch in her own right, was jailed under the presidency of Viktor Yanukovych. She was both the heroine of the Orange Revolution and one of the main reasons it failed. Infighting between her as prime minister and Viktor Yushchenko, who was president, paralyzed the government and prepared the way for the democratic return of Yanukovych, first as prime minister in 2006 and then as president in 2010. The Orange Revolution had begun after allegations that he had cheated in the presidential election of 2004. The fear is that if Tymoshenko becomes prime minister again, the same infighting scenario will unroll once more, albeit with Poroshenko as president. On May 25 she trailed a dismal second in the presidential poll, with 13 percent of the vote.

When it comes to dealing with the east, Poroshenko needs to act fast. After the polls closed on May 25 I went to the Mystetskyi Arsenal art museum in Kiev where he and Klitschko were celebrating. Slipping away from the crowd and the tables laden with drinks and, of course, Roshen chocolates, you could roam freely through an exhibition called “The Show Within the Show,” which featured pieces such as a wall of bird-houses made out of old speakers and a portrait of a sad-looking Vladimir Putin in front of the Kremlin clutching two military helmets. The text for the exhibition contained a line stating the “Shakespearean thesis” that “‘all the world’s a stage,’ and that ‘we are merely players,’ is imbued with the tragic declaration that we are born destined to a role.”

At the postelection party nothing seemed closer to the truth. Poroshenko and Klitschko ambled around followed by packs of journalists, stopping every now and then to answer questions. As he passed by I asked Poroshenko what his first act as president would be. He stopped and said that once inaugurated he would go to Donbas, the eastern region that is the epicenter of the insurrection, and talk to people there. I asked him if he would talk to people from the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, and his face creased in disgust as though I had insulted him. No, he said, he had no intention of talking to a “terrorist organization” whose aim was to reduce the region to a state of Somali-like anarchy.

2.

Anarchy is already a good way to describe the situation in Donetsk and neighboring Luhansk. On May 26, the day after the election, the rebels had moved to seize Donetsk airport and as many as fifty were slaughtered. That a large number of them were from Russia attests to the fact that in a region of 6.5 million people the rebels have not been able to find enough young men ready to die for a cause that has yet to be made clear. Some think it is about federalizing Ukraine, some about becoming independent, and some think it is about becoming part of Russia. Alexander Borodai, who calls himself the new prime minister of the Donetsk People’s Republic, says his aim is to incorporate the region into Russia. No one knows how Borodai became prime minster or whom he represents. He is a Russian citizen who, according to The New York Times, used to work as a consultant for an investment fund in Moscow. He has a background in extreme right-wing and nationalist politics. Now he appears to be attempting to impose order on the chaotic affairs of the separatists.

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Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
Petro Poroshenko with Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin at a ceremony marking the seventieth anniversary of the D-Day landings, Benouville, France, June 6, 2014.Poroshenko was inaugurated as president of Ukraine the next day.

It is not surprising that someone is trying to do this. On May 24, for example, the people’s republics of Donetsk and Luhansk declared that they were uniting into the Federal State of Novrossiya, or New Russia. This is the name that Putin has resurrected from the history of Catherine the Great and borrowed from people who, until recently, were regarded as being on the loony fringe of Russia’s nationalist movements. A couple of days later there were reports that the leader of the Luhansk republic had declared war on the leaders of the Donetsk republic, saying they were traitors. On June 10, Vyacheslav Ponomarev, the “people’s mayor” of the rebel stronghold of Sloviansk and a very public voice for the rebellion, was reportedly arrested by the local rebel military commander.

Earlier, on May 29, two key things happened. The rebels killed twelve Ukrainian soldiers, including a general, when they shot down a helicopter close to the rebel stronghold of Sloviansk. In Donetsk, however, militiamen from the so-called Vostok Battalion of rebels acted against men on their own side. They seized the occupied administration building in the center of Donetsk and kicked out some of the founders of the People’s Republic, whom they accused, not without justification, of lawlessness and looting. Plunder from a supermarket near the airport, including cheese and batteries, was then shown off to journalists.

The roots of the Vostok Battalion almost certainly lie in an earlier organization of the same name founded by the Russian-backed government in Chechnya to root out jihadis. It later fought the Georgians in 2008. When I asked Thomas de Waal, an expert on the Caucasus at the Carnegie Endowment in Washington, about the Vostok Battalion, he poured scorn on it and Russia’s “hypocrisy.” These men, he pointed out, were “fighting with separatists but supported by Russia, after so many years of hearing the rhetoric from Russia about the dangers of separatism.” While some of these Muslim Chechens might believe in the cause of fighting for Orthodox, Slavic, and Russian unity, one can only assume that others were more motivated by money. Still, many of those in the unit are not Chechens and they might have a patriotic desire to create a Greater Russia.

The appearance of the Vostok Battalion marked a new stage in the conflict. It suggested that Putin was trying to secure control over people who were otherwise out of control. At the same time he was trying to maintain an element of deniability, which he would be unable to do if he had sent regular Russian troops, albeit under the guise of being peacekeepers. Ramzan Kadyrov, the Chechen leader, denied that he had sent any men across the border, and there was an unconfirmed report that following the carnage at the Donetsk airport many of the Chechens had left.

If money is the motive of some of the men coming from Russia to fight and die in eastern Ukraine, the lack of it helps explain what is happening on the Ukrainian side. With a group invited by the German Marshall Fund, I went to see a senior security official in Kiev. We discussed why the Ukrainian security services had, to date at least, performed so miserably in the east. He said that since independence in 1991 the police especially had only had two real tasks. The first was to support whoever was in power and the second was to work as a racketeering organization, collecting money for their bosses in the regions and in Kiev. “It was not to protect people.”

As for the army, he said, almost all of its budget for the last twenty-three years had gone toward paying salaries. Hardly anything had gone into training or modern equipment. In this period, he added, Ukraine had claimed to have “an intelligence service, counterintelligence, and an army, but it was all just a façade.” All of the security services had essentially been hollowed out by a lack of money, which was a direct result of corruption. For such reasons, he said, Ukraine could be compared to the Democratic Republic of Congo.

There was, he said, another principal reason why the Ukrainian security forces have performed so badly since the annexation of Crimea and the rebel insurgency in the east. It had never seriously crossed anyone’s mind that any of this would happen and that Russia would ever act in a hostile manner, either directly or indirectly. A few years back, he said, he and some colleagues had written a paper on a possible Russian threat, which they argued could be made after the Sochi Olympics. However, “It was like an intellectual game. In my soul, I did not believe we would fight with Russia.” So, no one ever made any preparations for any such conflict and the security forces have been running to catch up since it began. Coordination between the services is also abysmal and has almost certainly resulted in deaths caused by friendly fire.

The fact that the Ukrainian military has taken so long to begin to act effectively has now led to a vacuum on the ground being filled by Ukrainian volunteer militias willing to defend the country from the separatists. The biggest are the Donbas and Dnipro battalions. They are willing to fight but are poorly trained and don’t coordinate properly with the army, if at all. When I asked the security source who was in control of them, he said “nobody.” In other words, at this stage in the conflict, several armed militias are rampaging across eastern Ukraine, and with every death the situation spirals a little further toward a full-scale civil war.

3.

Before the conflict broke out the vast majority of people in the east and the rest of Ukraine could not have imagined what is now happening. With every passing day it becomes ever easier to understand how a war can break out. Russia’s media, which has a strong influence in eastern Ukraine, and among Putin’s gullible fellow travelers in Western countries too, has successfully created an image of the revolutionaries in Kiev as fascists and neo-Nazis. In fact the leaders of the two main parties singled out as the paragons of Ukrainian fascism received a mere 2 percent of the vote in the presidential election. That result contrasts with the high figures secured on the same day in the European Parliament elections by the main xenophobic and nationalist parties in Britain, France, and elsewhere, some of whose leaders say they admire Putin. In the east, however, the effect of Russia’s “fascist” propaganda against the Kiev government is taking root and makes it easier for those who take up arms to kill those on the other side.

On the Ukrainian side a similar thing is happening. A complicated situation full of nuances in Donetsk and Luhansk has been reduced to a simplistic tale of terrorists and alleged Russian special forces. Now, however, as the situation drags out, some of the accusations and beliefs of both sides are turning into self-fulfilling prophecies. While there are no visible Russian special forces, there is now the Vostok Battalion. On the Ukrainian side, there are now men murdering civilians rather than fighting according to the laws of war.

On May 23, for example, just before the presidential election, men from a militia led by Oleh Lyashko, the leader of the small, pro-Kiev Radical Party, boasted of having gunned down in cold blood a Donetsk Republic official in his office in the little eastern town of Torez. Lyashko then picked up just over 8 percent of the vote. Those votes might have gone to the two candidates of the nationalist right had they been seen to have been killing more of their enemies rather than courting the middle ground or remaining uselessly camped around the Maidan in Kiev. For some who visited them there, it seemed as if they had no desire to leave, as Klitschko, the new mayor, was finding when he asked them to disperse.

This is the way that wars are created, by accident or design. Putin, euphoric from his success in Crimea, apparently felt encouraged to try something of the same in the east. This has resulted in nothing more than a chaotic and increasingly bloody mess. In early June, the Ukrainians lost control of border crossings near Luhansk, there was violent conflict around Sloviansk, and thousands began to flee their homes. On June 6 Poroshenko and Putin met in Normandy where they were both invited as part of the ceremonies to mark the seventieth anniversary of D-Day. The next day Poroshenko was inaugurated as president and said that he was in favor of decentralization for Ukraine’s regions and was offering “immunity” for anyone who did not have blood on their hands. As he was just reiterating what had already been offered by the interim president whom Poroshenko was succeeding, it was not surprising that the rebels instantly rejected his advance. Fighting got worse despite talks on a cease-fire between the Russian, Polish, and German foreign ministers, though not the Ukrainian foreign minister or the rebels.

In Washington I found policymakers truly disappointed when I told them that barring a miracle, eastern Ukraine was heading toward war. They appeared disappointed not because of eastern Ukraine itself, but rather because of the problem of having to deal with its consequences. Military rations, helmets, flak jackets, and uniforms are already being supplied to the Ukrainians by the US, but they need more, for example counterinsurgency advisers and specialized weaponry. But if the US supplies these, policymakers in Washington and Europe fear that Russia will regard it as a serious provocation and ratcheting up of the conflict, which of course it would be. Still, without the West pushing back, Putin will send more militiamen over the border.

—June 12, 2014

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