D J Webb
It is worth bearing in mind while commenting on the fighting in the Ukraine that ordinary people in Donetsk and Lugansk are bearing the brunt of the fighting there, and that ordinary people throughout the Ukraine are suffering the effects of the economic crisis that has resulted from the war. Whatever our stance on geopolitical matters—I would argue that libertarians generally side with Putin and Russia against US efforts to destabilize the region—our sympathies should lie with people on both sides of the fighting who have, in effect, been played with by Washington, Brussels and Moscow in a game of geopolitical chess.
Sympathizing with both sides
My initial sympathies were clearly with Putin. However, his failure to intervene properly to take the Russian-speaking area of the Ukraine historically known as Novorossiya seemed to me to evince a rather cynical and sneaky approach by Putin, a man who seems to prefer to manipulate from behind the scenes than operate clearly in public, partly because operating through separatist fighters and “volunteers” keeps Putin’s options open, allowing him to escalate further or de-escalate the situation at a future date should he so wish.
For this reason, while pinning the blame for the whole conflict on the Western-inspired coup in Kiev, I was left unimpressed by Putin’s decision to allow the city of Donetsk to descend into a conflict zone, with key infrastructure being destroyed and many civilian lines lost. Surely, having decided to encourage the rebellion, he had a responsibility to the people of Donetsk to intervene to defend them against the Ukrainian shelling? Had Putin conquered the eight provinces of Novorossiya in April 2014, at a time when the Ukrainian armed forces were in total disarray and NATO estimated Putin could conquer the lot in five days, the toll economically and in terms of human lives would have been less severe. To allow rule by thugs and constant shelling of civilian areas by the Ukrainians was not exactly what the separatist regions had signed up for.
Of course, I could also see the Ukrainian point of view: Putin seemed to have no grand strategy, but was merely intent on making the Ukraine a failed state. It was difficult not to admire the Ukrainian “cyborgs” who held out for months at the ruined shell of the Donetsk airport, and given Putin’s seeming willingness to allow Donetsk, the city itself, to become a war zone, a Ukrainian attempt to retake the city of Donetsk might have struck me as a better outcome, if it could be achieved quickly, than allowing the city to fester under the rule of thugs. Basically, the people of Donetsk ought to have a proper civilian administration, whether Russian or Ukrainian, and late in 2014 I was becoming increasingly unhappy with the way urban areas of a major city were allowed by Putin to become the frontline. Proper conquest by either side, with the installation of a normal civilian administration, struck me as desirable.
What does Putin want?
More recently, we have seen a final Russian (i.e. separatist) victory at Donetsk airport, removing the frontline further from the urban areas of Donetsk. This strikes me as a great improvement—for ordinary people in the city. However, it remains unclear what Putin wants. If he wants to conquer the whole region of Donetsk (more than twice the size of the whole of Yorkshire), he has made heavy weather of it so far, spending far too long on the ruins of an airport and the conquest of the odd village and field. The failure to take the port city of Mariupol’ also raises questions over whether he really wants the whole of Donetsk, or whether he is keeping his options open. I continue to suspect the people of Donetsk are pawns in all of this.
Is he aiming for a quasi-independent Donetsk region, something like a Russian version of Taiwan (an effectively independent part of China)? This option might imply forgetting about trying to dominate the Ukraine; yet that is clearly contrary to Russia’s long-term plans. Or is he still hoping to manipulate the whole of the Ukraine through Donetsk, by trying to insist in talks with Kiev that the separatist regions have a veto on Ukrainian accession to the EU and NATO? This option seems unlikely ever to be acceptable to Kiev. Or is he merely trying to prevent the Ukraine from being a successful state? Even those of us who oppose Western intervention in the Ukraine will be disconcerted at attempts by Moscow to ensure that the Ukraine becomes a failed state. Wielding Donetsk and Lugansk as weapons in an attempt to make the Ukraine a failed state has a “dog in the manger” aspect to it that evinces cavalier disregard for the interests of the Ukrainian people. This is a long way from the speedy incorporation into Russia, without destruction of the infrastructure of the Donbass, that local separatists may have hoped for in April 2014.
Putin’s grand plan remains unclear. But it now seems that a relatively large quasi-state is in the process of emergence that will be effectively independent of Kiev. I think the local separatists need to be wary of Moscow, which could march them up the hill and then abandon them as it saw fit to suit the needs of Russia. But given the fact that they’re dependent on Russian support, they have little choice other than to fit in with whatever Putin agrees to in international negotiations with France, Germany and the government of the Ukraine.
The attitude of Kiev
What is clear, however, is the bad behaviour of the Kiev government. The Russians have behaved badly too, in fomenting an uprising based on what was initially only minority support in the region, but there is little cultural difference between Russians and Ukrainians, and we can see that the Ukrainians are every bit as reprehensible in this conflict. The Western press has airbrushed Ukrainian attacks on civilian areas out of the official narrative on the Ukraine; yet these are well-documented, including the shelling of schools and hospitals in Donetsk.
The Financial Times has carried a report on the emergence of a national consciousness in Donetsk, where the local population has grown more hostile to the Ukraine with the constant Ukrainian attacks on civilian areas. A 20-year-old student who had previously supported a united Ukraine is quoted:
“We thought [Mr Poroshenko] would come to Donetsk, but he didn’t come once,” she said. She dismissed claims that Donetsk locals were being brainwashed by the rebel leadership and Russian television. “You don’t need to be a soldier to understand from what direction artillery fire is coming,” she said. “We have access to the internet. We’re not in the stone age. We’re not zombies.”
Western coverage of the war is quite shocking in its bias: attacks on civilian areas in Donetsk are not covered, or else it is implied that such attacks are done by the local separatists, as if they would be shelling their own supporters.
It seems clear that the Ukrainians have no love lost for the regions of Donetsk and Lugansk—few people in the Ukraine want to sign up to fight for them—and the local population has increasingly come to believe that the Ukrainian armed forces are prepared to attack civilian areas in a bid to punish the local population for supporting the rebellion. If what Putin wants is unclear, what does the Ukraine want? I’m inclined to suspect that the Ukraine does not wish to lose two provinces that in 2013 accounted for 15% of the country’s GDP. For one thing, losing such large territories would cause the effective debt-to-GDP ratio of the Ukrainian state to soar further, complicating negotiations with the IMF.
Regaining control over Donetsk and Lugansk would carry risks for Kiev too, however. They would bear the costs of reconstruction, and would find themselves saddled with a Russian-speaking population, who—inexplicably in the eyes of Western journalists—objected to the use of cluster bombs by the Ukrainian military in civilian areas of Donetsk. (The Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, has been criticized for his use of barrel bombs in civilian areas, but it seems similar Ukrainian tactics do not attract Western criticism.) Does Kiev really want these areas back? Or are they merely trying to contain the rebellion? Would Kiev prefer the far-right Azov Battalion to remain at the front killing Russian speakers rather than returning to cause trouble, or even demand the fall of the government, in Kiev?
Is it not unacceptable for a state to pursue a military solution when it knows it cannot win the war? To do so harms civilians. The attitude of fighting street-by-street and defending control over every small town would amount to the wielding of (Russian-speaking) civilians as a human shield by the Ukrainians, a tragedy currently playing out in Debal’tsevo. If you’ve lost the war, surrender the territory and spare the people. There seems to be a willingness to cause civilian casualties in the East and a refusal to negotiate properly on Kiev’s plans to join NATO and the EU and to decentralize the country. The statement by the Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, after the recent Minsk agreement that the Ukraine would not grant autonomy to the separatist areas—despite the plain wording of the agreement—amounts to a unilateral refusal to negotiate. How can these areas not be autonomous after all they’ve been through? The Ukraine does not have the wherewithal to conquer them back, it seems. The Kiev government is being entirely mulish on this issue.
The Donetsk nation
As the Financial Times reported in the article linked to above, there is the emergence of a national consciousness in Donetsk. More and more residents of Donetsk are returning to the city, and cafés and restaurants are reopening. People who weren’t sure in April 2014 whether to support the separatists have become convinced by Kiev’s military tactics that there can be no going back to Ukrainian rule.
Interesting, in the southern port city of Mariupol’, residents organized themselves to defend the city from a separatist takeover last year. More recently, however, polls taken in the city show 30% to support the separatists and 60% to be neutral. Very few people in this Russian-speaking city still under Ukrainian rule actively support the Ukrainian government.
Kiev has lost the battle of hearts and minds for the east. It would be interesting to poll the Donetsk region as a whole now and ascertain the views of the people, but opinion survey companies usually avoid Donetsk city itself, owing to the war. It seems indubitable that there has been a shift in opinion against Kiev in the region. Any resolution of this conflict ought to allow the people of Donetsk and Lugansk to choose their future, whether in Russia or the Ukraine, or even as an independent state.
Since the failure of the Ukrainian government to take the Donetsk airport—despite constant claims by the Kiev government that it had done so, and was even poised to enter Donetsk itself—I have become more convinced that Kiev is the villain of this piece, and that they made Donetsk a war zone while having no plans to reconquer the city and bring it under proper civilian rule. They killed civilians just for the sake of it. I have yet to be fully convinced that the separatists can establish a proper government that amounts to anything more than the rule of thugs, but the movement of the frontline beyond the city allows for that, if that is going to happen. If that happens, it will be hard, and unjust, to refuse to recognize the claims of Donetsk to be a new nation.