When I returned to Ukraine at the end of August I went to see a senior diplomat in Kiev. He told me that things had changed so fast since I had been there in the spring that Ukraine was already “a different country” from the one it had been then. The main thing was that Ukrainian forces were on the offensive and winning back territory. They had had “considerable success” in retaking the rebel stronghold of Sloviansk on July 5; but now, stuck at the gates of rebel-held Donetsk and not wanting to turn it into “a Stalingrad,” the government, he said, “was realizing the limits of its current strategy.” Neither of us knew just how right he was.
When I left his office I called a Ukrainian army contact who wanted a journalist reporting for an American publication to come and see what his men were doing in the east. The next day he sent me a terse text message. It said: “Security situation is critical now. I cannot host you this week. Sorry.” It was August 27 and the time was exactly 1:00 PM.
I rang him up to try to persuade him to change his mind. Sounding stressed, he said he could not talk just then. A few weeks later everything became clear. He was in Ilovaysk in eastern Ukraine. On August 26 things had looked fine. The next day Ukrainian forces were surrounded and routed. He just managed to escape with his life but many did not. This defeat, here and elsewhere, meant that Ukraine had again turned into a different country. On September 5, President Petro Poroshenko authorized the signing of a cease-fire agreement in Minsk with rebel forces, which in reality meant with Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president. Yuriy Lutsenko, Poroshenko’s adviser, explained how it had come to this: “I saw refrigerated lorries with fragments of bodies.” They were the remains of Ukrainian government soldiers coming from the east.
Since then the cease-fire has proved perplexing. In most parts of the east the guns fell silent, but in Donetsk, fighting continued for the airport. The Ukrainians were inside it firing out, and rebel forces were outside firing in. Every few days the Russian media reported that the airport had fallen, but at least by mid-September it had not. Civilians who lived in the district nearby continued to die, but much of the rest of Donetsk, from which perhaps half the population of almost a million had fled, was not just quiet but returning to life. People were coming home to the city, which is the “capital” of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, or DNR to use its Russian acronym, which in turn has declared itself part of the breakaway state of Novorossiya.
After a couple of weeks in the east I left Donetsk and drove to the town of Konstantinovka, which had been taken by the rebels in the spring but is now back in Ukrainian hands. At the last rebel checkpoint on the way out of Donetsk there was a traffic jam of almost two miles of cars and trucks lining up to get into the city. Earlier, I talked with some of the people who were returning. Some of them had run out of money, and now that shells and rockets were not falling in most of the city they had decided to take their chances and come home.
The reason I was going to Konstantinovka, which in normal times is one hour’s drive north of Donestk, was that you can get a train from there to Kiev. Because of war damage, it can no longer get to Donetsk. Ukrainian flags have replaced DNR flags in the town and billboards proclaim: “Konstantinovka Is Ukraine.” The small station entrance was packed—not, I realized, with people trying to buy tickets. They were trying to get money from an ATM that they had heard was working. With so many armed men on the roads, anyone or any bank would think twice about driving around with truckfuls of cash.
Taking the train was one those jarring experiences that you sometimes have in war-torn countries. The train was sleek and totally modern and inside it had screens showing films advertising holidays in Croatia and Italy. Twenty-three minutes after leaving, it pulled into Sloviansk. From the window I saw the golden-roofed bell tower of the church where I had attended the funeral service for Aleksandr Lubenets, a twenty-one-year-old rebel who had died on April 24.
The day after his death I had met his father, who was still in a state of utter shock. Then I saw him again at the funeral. He squatted down, like a man crushed, as the priests chanted over the open coffin of his son, while journalists jostled to get a better view of it. As Aleksandr was buried there was much shouting of slogans about death and liberty. Now, as the train began to accelerate up to 163 kilometers an hour (the speed was shown on the screens), I couldn’t help wondering if Aleksandr’s father thought his son’s sacrifice had been worth it.
I was on my way back to Kiev because I wanted to attend a conference at which many important people would be present. It is called the Yalta European Strategy meeting and, until this year, was held annually in Yalta in Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in March. As far as I know, it is now unique as a conference in exile.
Before Arseniy Yatsenyuk, the Ukrainian prime minister, spoke, his aides put little pamphlets on everyone’s seat. The title was “Recovery for Ukraine: Action Plan.” It outlined what Yatsenyuk’s government has done since the revolution that overthrew President Viktor Yanukovych in February. In bullet points it spelled out what remained to be done. Some of the points were pretty straightforward and the type of thing you might read in almost any election manifesto, which in essence it was, because Ukraine will hold a general election on October 26. They were items like “fight corruption” and construct “the Wall,” which was defined as “a well-defended border between Ukraine and Russia.” But the starkest point of all was the simplest. In the list of “our aims” it said: “To get through the winter.”
Although this sounds vague, I sympathize with Yatsenyuk or whoever wrote the pamphlet. The fact is that on every level, everything is now about getting through the winter and everyone is bracing for it. It comes down to two core issues: fighting in mud, ice, and snow (think of Napoleon and Hitler); and how much gas and electricity the country will have.
Much of Ukraine’s gas comes from Russia, and because it has not paid its debts and because of the war, the flow of gas to Ukraine has been cut off, although the same pipelines that supply Ukraine also supply much of the rest of Europe. Ukraine has laid in stocks, however, and demand for gas has plummeted because industrial production has collapsed. Ukraine has also started to receive what is called a “reverse flow” of gas from Slovakia, Hungary, and Poland. This is Russian gas that has been bought by Kiev from these countries and is then pumped back into Ukraine. As a result, Gazprom, the Russian gas producer, has begun to reduce its supplies to them.
In mid-September the best guess of everyone I spoke to was that even if a new deal over gas is not struck with Russia, Ukraine might just be able to scrape through the winter without the heat going off and industries closing down for long periods, though no one could be sure. With the cease-fire, power plants have also begun to stock up on coal again, some of it imported from South Africa and Australia, because many of Ukraine’s coal mines are in the east, in areas where there is fighting and mining has stopped.
The issue of power this winter affects not just Ukraine but Crimea too. And this is one region where what both sides decide to do next will have large consequences. Since all the power for Crimea’s more than two million people comes from Ukraine, a shortage of gas in Ukraine means a shortage of power in Crimea as well. But the prospect is worse in Crimea. Supplies of everything must come either by road through Ukraine, by air, or by ferry from Russia. In winter the Sea of Azov is both icy and stormy, making the short crossing from Russia unreliable. Crimea, brusquely and dramatically seized by Russia, risks becoming a virtual island.
We have to ask, what did Vladimir Putin think he was doing when he annexed Crimea without having secure access to it? The answer seems to be that Putin blundered. In his statements we can see that he has a very old-fashioned and typically Russian patronizing view of Ukraine; he does not believe that the Ukrainians are a proper nation and hence, as Yevgenia Albats, a liberal journalist from Moscow told me, “the people in the Kremlin did not expect Ukrainians to fight back.”
Of course, Ukraine cannot win if the entire might of the Russian army is thrown against it, but large numbers of dead young Russians were not in Putin’s mind when he launched the project of Novorossiya, wrenching off much of the east and south of Ukraine. In Kiev I met a military man who told me that Putin was acting according to Lenin’s dictum: “Probe with a bayonet. If you meet steel, stop. If you meet mush, then push.” Crimea was mush, but eastern Ukraine has been different.
Looking at the situation from Kiev it seems that the Russians, who helped reverse rebel defeats at the end of August, have now stopped because they, like the Ukrainians, need to take stock of the situation and regroup before winter. Rebels backed by Russians came to the gates of Mariupol on the Sea of Azov and then halted. Last spring they took the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, building by building. Now, while the Ukrainians have found they can shell the two cities but are not strong enough to retake them militarily, the rebels and the Russians have so far balked at trying to mount the same kind of attack in Mariupol, which might entail much destruction and loss of life.
Russia has 25,000 troops in Crimea, and Ukraine has few defenses in the region to fight the Russians if they decide to mount an offensive using those troops. Ukraine’s forces are all deployed in the east. But from Crimea it is two hundred miles to where rebel forces are now based to the east of Mariupol, and it would be an enormous military undertaking to seize all this territory in order to make a land corridor from the Russian border to Crimea. A Ukrainian intelligence source told me that, for now, the Russians simply did not have enough men to do this, and besides, a considerable proportion of the people in that region would be hostile to the rebels and the Russians.
Surprised, I asked him how it could be that the Russians don’t have enough soldiers. Because, he explained, rather like Ukraine’s army, the number of actual combat-ready Russian soldiers is quite a small proportion of the total. To beef up the numbers now available in Crimea and on the Ukrainian border or already in the east of Ukraine would mean redeploying troops from Chechnya and restive parts of the north Caucasus. This would leave Russia exposed to jihadis who might try to exploit the sudden diminution of Russian military power there.
Mykola Kapitonenko, a Ukrainian analyst, argued that Putin had overstretched. Yes, he could conquer the corridor to Crimea but holding it would mean pinning down a lot of men for a long time; and who was going to pay for Novorossiya? Putin may brush off the Western sanctions that are gradually increasing, but as time goes on they are beginning to take their toll on the Russian economy. And, Kapitonenko said, despite the reversal of Ukrainian fortunes in the east, he believed that “the Russians are fighting as badly as we are, but they outnumber us.”
In view of all this, Ukrainians I spoke to believe that there is a debate in military circles in Moscow between those who believe that Russia should go all out and conquer as much of Ukraine as possible and those who think they have effective control of enough territory in Donetsk and Luhansk to keep Ukraine permanently destabilized and hence unable to pursue its government’s strategic objectives of European integration and moving closer to NATO. Now everyone is waiting for Putin to decide which side of the argument he will support.
On the Ukrainian side the military issues are utterly different. The fact is that Ukrainian defenses have proved chaotic at best and hopeless at worst. The army became badly run down following independence in 1991. Since the war began, dozens of volunteer battalions, loosely affiliated with either the ministry of defense or the ministry of interior, have sprung up to fill the need for troops. The system by which all this is meant to be coordinated does not work. The volunteer battalions do what they like, get into trouble, and then claim they have been betrayed by the top brass when no help is forthcoming. However, if the highest commanding officers do not know what they are doing, it is hardly surprising that when the volunteer battalions need army backup or rescuing, other units are not ready. One source told me that the Ukrainian units were surrounded in Ilovaysk because a volunteer group holding part of the line simply fled when the going got tough, allowing the rebels and Russian forces to shut the trap on the rest of the Ukrainians.
According to Ihor Smeshko, a former Ukrainian intelligence chief, Ukraine has no capacity to gather modern military intelligence or organize logistics and a system of control and command. The volunteer battalions, he says, are run on an “amateur level.” Of course this has led to defeats on the battlefield, and now Ukraine must reorganize and regroup its military. It is absurd, he said, that a state of war has not been declared. The government says that Russian forces have invaded Ukraine, but refuses to say officially that a war is being fought; the conflict is justified by the legal fiction of an antiterrorist operation. The reasons for this are several but one is that a state of war would mean that the members of the general staff have full responsibility for everything, including keeping people supplied with food and water, and they have no capacity to do so. Secondly, elections would not be possible, at least in areas covered by a declaration of war.
Warming to his theme of the chaotic military situation, Smeshko argued that Putin does not understand Ukraine. The volunteer battalions are often ineffectual, he says, but they are also a modern reversion to Ukrainian Cossack roots. Russia, in his view, has a different tradition. Historically the heartlands of Ukraine were populated by free farmers and warriors. The Russian tradition is that of “total rule,” he says, of “God, Tsar, and Motherland,” but the Ukrainian one is that of “God, freedom, family, and motherland. For centuries we did not have a tsar.”
It is always debatable how much such historical traditions can really explain current geopolitical conflicts; but what Smeshko says goes some way to explaining what is happening, especially if we take account of what Putin says, specifically that Russia has been cheated by history and hence that it only intends to rectify that and to pull Ukraine back into Russia’s orbit, recreating some form of Russian empire. When Crimea was annexed he said: “We are not just close neighbors, we are essentially, as I have said more than once, a single people.” In other words he cannot bring himself to see that what might have been true many generations ago (and many Ukrainians would disagree even with that) is no longer true now. By doing what he is doing he is making it even less true.
Meanwhile, if the cease-fire does prove to be the forerunner of a genuine political process that leads to some form of autonomy for the rebel-held areas—and legislation has been passed to allow for that—then some are pondering how to eventually get these areas back under full Ukrainian control. Poroshenko and his adviser Lutsenko, who also heads the president’s political party, talk of building an economically strong and alluring Ukraine that, by virtue of its wealth and example, will draw even Crimea back into Ukraine. Lutsenko makes a comparison between the attraction of the old West Berlin for people in what was then East Berlin. That seems to be a very long-term and optimistic project, but Lutsenko makes it clear that he believes there is also another option—that is, the Croatian model.
In 1991, Croatia lost a third of its territory when Serbs said they were righting a historical wrong. Croatian Serbs found themselves inside an independent Croatia and not, if there was to be no more Yugoslavia, a Greater Serbia. By 1995, a rebuilt and superior Croatian army, backed by the US, drove the Serbs out. The Serbian leader Slobodan Milošević claimed, as Putin does today, to have nothing to do with the conflict over the border, but then Serbia, weakened by years of sanctions and war in Bosnia, just gave up on the self-proclaimed Croatian Serb rebel republic. Many Serbs fled Croatia and the rebel republic ceased to exist. The Balkan wars and the Ukrainian war are different in many fundamental ways, but Lutsenko is not wrong to take a close look at the last wars in Europe before this one.
It is also worth noting that it took years for the US and European countries to take military action in the Balkans. A senior European diplomat I know, who also knows the Balkans well, told me that with respect to Ukraine, “We [Europeans] are just building a wall around ourselves and making strong statements, which means they [the Ukrainians] are on their own.” Unless something changes, by which he means some serious military help being given to Kiev, “the Russians are going to win.” Large-scale military assistance to the Ukrainians is not yet in sight. A few days later however I met a group of a couple of dozen French and German soldiers checking into my hotel in Kiev. They said they had come to do a reconnaissance mission with a view to flying drones to support cease-fire monitoring by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. I wonder whether one day their scouting trip in the east will be seen as the thin end of the military-involvement wedge.
When I talked to the Ukrainian journalist Nataliya Gumenyuk about the war and the volunteer battalions, she recalled an old proverb that says: “Where there are two Ukrainians there are three hetmans.” A hetman is what Cossack chieftains were called. If this holds true on the battlefield it is also true in Kiev, where politicians are getting ready for the upcoming elections. President Poroshenko now has a party named after himself and it seems likely to win the most votes. Prime Minister Yatsenyuk, who was once close to Yulia Tymoshenko, the fiery leader of the Orange Revolution of 2004–2005 who was jailed under Yanukovych, has split from her and found new allies. He is also attracting battalion commanders to his ranks. There are no significant political differences that I can see between the parties of these hetmans. Their parties and coalitions are all based on the personalities and power of their leaders.
Yanukovych’s old eastern-dominated Party of Regions has splintered and will not participate in the election, but successor parties are emerging that will win votes in the east, though it is extremely unlikely that any voting will take place in rebel-held areas. The radical nationalist Svoboda party has been eclipsed by that of Oleh Lyashko, a deputy in the outgoing parliament who has his own militia and can be seen in videos interrogating captured rebels wearing only their underpants or plastic bags on their heads. When Russian propagandists claim that the Ukrainians are led by fascist thugs, the brutal Lyashko might seem to be what they have in mind. But according to the polls that show him coming in second to Poroshenko, many Ukrainians clearly approve and think Lyashko is laying down the law and doing what other cowardly politicians should be doing.
Ukraine’s next parliament seems likely to be split into many factions, and Poroshenko may well end up having to work with a prime minister with whom he is in conflict. This was exactly the political outcome that destroyed the hopes of the Orange Revolution and led to the return of Yanukovych as prime minister in 2006.
Before leaving for the east at the end of August, I went to see Andrey Kurkov. Born in Russia, he has lived in Kiev since childhood and is the author of several novels that have brought him much acclaim abroad. During last winter’s Maidan revolution he wrote a diary and every day he sent the entries to his publisher in Vienna for translation. The English version of his Ukraine Diaries: Dispatches from Kiev has just been published.* It is a wonderful and swift-moving account of those tumultuous days, mixing the reality of the revolution with the mundane facts of everyday life.
Kurkov told me how his colleagues in Russia had cut off communication with him, probably because they were scared since they were all “fed by the state budget” in one way or another. He has been insulted and vilified for his support of Ukraine. He showed me a postcard sent from Paris by a man with a Russian name on which the man had written “Ukraine” in the address but then in brackets “Malorussia” or Little Russia, an old name for much of Ukraine but now used only in derogatory ways. On the future of the war he told me that he thought 90 percent of the events would depend on relations between Russia and the US. “Most Ukrainians are very disillusioned about Europe,” he said, citing what he saw as a lack of support from the European Union.
At the end of his diary he talks about digging up potatoes at his country house in September “regardless of the military situation.” Then he asks: “Where will I be? Where will my wife and children be in September? I want to believe that we’ll be at home in Kiev, going to our country house every weekend like we usually do—grilling shashlik, gathering the harvest, making apple jam and spending the evenings in the summerhouse with a glass of wine, talking about the future.” But then he adds, “It’s funny but the future we talk about never seems to come.” That certainly seems to have been the problem of the Ukrainians. For almost a quarter of a century they have been waiting for a good and prosperous independent country to emerge. It still seems far away.
—Kiev, Ukraine, September 24, 2014