The Battle for Ukraine

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.


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…

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