Thursday, March 6, 2014

Second Crimean War Update: Western Credibility, Russian Lies, and Putin’s Next Steps (Hint: “Donetsk Republic”)

Disarmed Ukrainian troops in Crimea just before a tense but inconclusive showdown
yesterday with Russian troops disguised as “local defense forces”
The Second Crimean War is well under way.  And if there was ever an illustration of the principle that history always repeats itself, the first time as tragedy and the second time as farce, it is the events of the past couple weeks.  The first Crimean War gave us the tragic angelic figure of Florence Nightingale, ministering to the wounded, and the fighting was immortalized by Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade.”  The Second Crimean War gives us Vladimir Putin—that second-rate, bargain-bin Czar—in an odious little soccer-fan haircut arrogantly spouting lies, while the Kremlin’s English-language media mouthpiece, Russia Today, brings no less a foreign-affairs expert than pinheaded action-film star and former child-trafficking suspect Steven Seagal on camera to badmouth Barack Obama and the European Union (E.U.) and praise Russia, in between jarring mucosal noises emanating from his nose and throat.  Is that the same Steven Seagal who has a lucrative sponsorship deal with a Russian munitions firm?  Yup.  Is this simpleton also the same Steven Seagal who was considering running for governor of Arizona?  Um, well, um, not anymore, I guess.  I suppose that exploratory committee might just quietly disband now.

Pro-Kremlin media roll out the red carpet for foreign-policy expert Steven Seagal.
On the ground, meanwhile, what used to be the Autonomous Republic of Crimea within the Republic of Ukraine is now de facto under the control of the Kremlin.  Russian troops occupy its major government buildings and surround its airports, a pro-Russian regional government has seized control, and Russia’s Black Sea Fleet blockades the peninsula’s harbors.  Putin, in a press conference the other day, flatly denied that there were any Russian troops in Crimea beyond those already there in leased naval bases and that it was ad hoc “local self-defense forces” that were controlling the peninsula.  That is contradicted by the fact that these forces are using Russian military vehicles as transport, that they use the latest and most sophisticated weapons and training techniques, that reporters have recorded troop movements from Russia into Crimea, and that members of these supposed local self-defense forces have flat out told reporters that they are members of the Russian military taking their orders from Moscow.

Putin at his press conference this week
Meanwhile, Putin claims that his support for and solidarity with these self-defense forces is in response to a threat to the very existence of Ukraine’s Russian-speaking minority—who are a majority in Crimea—from fascists and neo-Nazis that have forcibly taken over the Ukrainian government and ejected its legitimate president, Viktor Yanukovych.  There are indeed ultranationalists in Ukraine, and some of them are dismayingly infatuated with the symbols and themes of the German-aligned rebel forces that fought the Soviet Union on the devastated battleground that Ukraine became during the Second World War.  It is also true that some of these ultranationalists, through their very loudness and insistence, seem to have won some sort of seat at the table in the new Ukrainian government.  But the new government in Kiev was appointed by the duly elected Ukrainian parliament, including a president and prime minister succeeding the opulently corrupt Yanukovych after he had already fled the country and been duly impeached by parliament.  As for Ukrainian oppression of ethnic Russians?  International media and observers have looked for and found no evidence whatsoever that this is going on.  The new Ukrainian government did indeed reverse some previous controversial language laws that had privileged the Russian language (an unwise move, public-relations-wise), but if anything ethnic Russians now seem to have the run of eastern Ukraine’s major cities (more on that below).  Putin’s pretexts for war are utterly concocted, but the general public in Russia and in eastern Ukraine have no other sources of information than the Russian-language media that the autocratic Putin has been systematically taking control of over the past decade.

John Kerry patiently explains to an ordinary Ukrainian citizen
precisely which flimsy pretexts for war are acceptable in the 21st century.
The United States secretary of state, John Kerry, has visited Kiev and has made a strong case against Russian aggression, but he has also stumbled over some credibility issues.  Kerry asserted, in words that have now become famous, “You just don’t invade another country on phony pretext in order to assert your interests.”  Wait, is this the same John Kerry who, as senator for Massachusetts, voted to authorize the use of military force in Iraq, in a war based on what everyone, including Senator Kerry, utterly and completely knew were lies and false pretexts concocted by George W. Bush?  Yes, that is the same John Kerry (you see, he wanted to be president someday, and he didn’t want anyone to have a reason to call him unpatriotic).  And, call me prescient, but when he was first appointed secretary of state—and when Hillary Rodham Clinton, who voted the same way in 2003, was appointed secretary of state before him—I foresaw that some day a situation just like this might arise.  Even though Obama, to his credit, opposed the Iraq War from the getgo, nonetheless Russia and the pro-Russian media have pounced on Kerry’s rank hypocrisy with well-deserved glee.

As insanely fictive as Putin’s version of events is—and Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, got off the phone with him this week and declared him to be “living in another world” and not “in touch with reality”—there is a perverse logic to the Kremlin’s case, and it is designed to underline and showcase the West’s hypocrisy.  After all, the arguments that Putin is making—that Russian military maneuvers and policies are merely to defend a threatened ethnic minority—are exactly those arguments that were used in 1999 to justify the U.S. and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s unilateral and non-U.N.-sanctioned violation of the Republic of Serbia’s sovereignty in a bombing campaign that targeted Serbia’s civilian infrastructure in violation of the Geneva Conventions.  (Kerry supported that, too, by the way.)  Yes, indeed, the Serbian persecution of Kosovo’s Albanians was real, while the Ukrainian persecution of Crimea’s Russians is not.  But Putin is 100% right that the West is hypocritically denying to Russia the unilateral leeway to use illegal military force that it claims for itself.  The carving out of the Republic of Kosovo from the soft southern flank of Serbia, a Russian ally, has been a thorn in Russia’s side for a very long time.  You can call the Second Crimean War Putin’s payback.  If anything, Putin has really been enjoying himself pointing these parallels out.

So much for the ideological battle, the war of words.  This is not where the battle will be won; it will be won on the ground, on the vast plains of the Steppes which have once again, for the first time in seven decades, become a gruesome chessboard for the strategists in Moscow, London, Paris, and Washington.  What will happen to Crimea now, and what is Putin planning next?

For the time being, Crimea has been lost.  The Ukrainian military is not contesting this in any concrete way.  What had been a March 30th referendum on independence promised by Crimea’s new Russian-installed government has now become, within the past 24 hours, the promise of a March 16th referendum (no sense wasting time, I suppose) on whether Crimea should become part of Russia.  Putin has stated that he doesn’t want to annex Crimea or even separate it from Ukraine ... yet.  But a referendum result would authorize him to change his mind and move in troops to defend “the people’s choice.”

Anti-Russian demonstrators with Crimean Tatar national flags in Simferopol this week
A full-on annexation by Russia would be problematic; for one thing, it would trigger all sorts of United Nations measures involving violations of sovereignty.  More likely, Putin will blush and say “aw shucks” at the compliment but then politely tell Crimea’s Russians that they should just be independent instead.  This would create another Russian puppet state, like Transnistria in Moldova or South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia—run by Kremlin stooges and defended by Russian troops while enjoying no international legitimacy.  One could also add to this list of pseudo-states the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, which post-Soviet Armenia, a Russian ally, created as a puppet state out of an Armenian-populated part of Azerbaijan.  This would go a long way toward Putin’s desired recreation of the old Soviet empire from the rubble of the Soviet successor states: Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Armenia as Russian vassal states and South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Transnistria, Nagorno-Karabakh, and now Crimea as de facto Russian-ruled pockets scattered around within otherwise hostile countries.  (Moldova, Georgia, and Azerbaijan are all strongly Western-aligned.)

The flag of Abkhazia, a Russian puppet state, on display with the Russian one
This much is already clear.  Similar propaganda campaigns and manufactured provocations preceded the establishment of those other puppet states.  It is now Putin’s standard playbook.  Incidentally, it is also chillingly similar to the way that Adolf Hitler used the pretext of supposed persecution of ethnic Germans stranded in foreign countries that used to be imperial possessions in order to justify the annexation of Poland and the Sudetenland, the creation of puppet states in Hungary and Croatia, etc. etc.

That Putin will succeed in bringing Crimea into his orbit no one doubts.  All anyone is talking about now are what costs he will be made to pay and how much further he is willing to go.  As for the costs, one thing Western strategists need to realize is that Putin might not even care.  Lots of talking heads and columnists are telling us that a stable, prosperous Ukraine economically engaged with both West and East is in everyone’s interest, including Russia’s, and including especially Russia’s oligarchs who pull so many strings, and thus Putin will eventually realize this and not spark a wider war.  But is this point of view a mistake?  If Merkel’s intuitions are correct, Putin is not rational.  Did Hitler care that he was driving the German economy into the dirt to expand his empire as widely as possible?  No, and his supporters didn’t care either.  Both 1940s Germany and 2010s Russia can be characterized as shot through with a pathological form of aggrieved nationalism: the belief that all of their current problems are because a decadent West has emasculated them and and dismantled their empires and are vindictively holding them back from the former imperial Golden Age greatness that is their due.  Like Hitler, Putin may be willing to put his own country through any hardships and humiliations to follow the Holy Grail of regained imperial glory.  He wants there to be statues of himself in every square in Russia after he dies.  He also knows that he has nuclear weapons and that no one wants to take him on directly.  (It’s worth pointing out here that the U.S. and NATO, in foreign adventures like Kosovo, Afghanista, Libya, and Iraq, act with this kind of impunity as well.)

Donbas (i.e., Donetsk region) irredentists rally in eastern Ukraine
But how far will he go?  The big question is whether he will try to pull a Crimea-type stunt in predominantly-Russian parts of the eastern and southern parts of the Ukrainian mainland as well.  Indications are that he is testing those waters.  On March 3rd, pro-Russian mobs stormed government offices in Donetsk, a city in the ethnic-Russian-dominated east of Ukraine which is capital of the eponymous home oblast of Yanukovych himself, who is of Russian, Belarussian, and Polish ancestry, not Ukrainian.  Donetsk oblast (see map below) is about 75% Russian-speaking and is named for the Don River—that’s Don as in And Quiet Flows the Don, the novel by the Nobel-Prize-winning Russian writer Mikhail Sholokhov, which glorifies the Don Cossacks—who had their own republic during the Russian Civil War, in territory that includes modern Ukraine.

The leader of the regional-level mini-coup in Donetsk, which seem well coordinated, is one Pavel Gubarev, head of the People’s Militia of Donbas, who held a raucous press conference in Donetsk oblast’s main government building yesterday (March 5) in front of the black, red, and blue flag of what he called the Donetsk Republic.  To a crowd chanting, “Rossiya! Rossiya!” he thundered, “I am for Donetsk being a part of Russia!”  He promised that on March 8th “there will be a ‘People’s Committee’ meeting here.   Only then can we make the decision regarding Russian troops. Kiev are involved in their own affairs and their deputies here are too frightened to do anything. It's time for us to take the decisions here.  There is no chance that people here in Donetsk will want to continue being part of Ukraine.  The people of Donetsk support us.  We shall address the Russian authorities and ask them to bring a peacekeeping force here.  It is the only way to keep order.”

Gubarev plans to invite Russian troops to annex the “Donetsk Republic.”
Information on the background of the 30-year-old Gubarev, who brandishes a bandaged right hand, is hard to come by.  But most of the crowds in the Donetsk uprising, such as it is, seem to be either bussed in from Russia itself or are being given Russian passports en masse.

The mysterious Pavel Gubarev ...

... who bears an uncomfortable resemblance to General Zod from the planet Krypton
The tricolor used by the so-called Donetsk Republic appears to be that of the Donetsk–Krivoy Rog Soviet Republic, one of several briefly-existing Bolshevik states that existed in the midst of the Russian Civil War in 1918 before power was consolidated in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic as we later knew it, under the U.S.S.R.’s umbrella.  Donetsk–Krivoy Rog had its capital at Kharkov (now called Kharkiv; see map above), which was also proposed last month by pro-Russian activists in Crimea as the capital of a future Federated States of Malorossiya (Malorussia, i.e. “Little Russia,” a Czarist name for Ukraine).

The hastily concocted coat-of-arms of the Donetsk Republic
It sort of tells you all you want to know about the sort of people promoting a Donetsk Republic that they choose that drab tricolor over the existing oblast flag, which is one of the loveliest flags to be found anywhere:

Other such republics that might see revival in the next days or weeks included one centered on Odessa, a currently ethnic-Russian-dominated oblast abutting Moldova, Romania, and Transnistria which also has a significant Jewish population.  The city of Odessa also has a Black Sea port Putin wouldn’t mind getting his hands on.  A puppet-state in Odessa would also link Transnistria (see above) territorially with the Russian heartland and might, thus, permanently prevent Moldova from ever joining NATO or reunifying with Romania.

Hastily produced Donetsk Republic passports
Perhaps as potentially as volatile as Donetsk but far more ethnically complex is the far-western oblast of Transcarpathia (Zakarpats’ka). Here, the Slavic ethnic group known as Ruthenians (a.k.a. Rusyns) were denied an independent homeland in the Paris Conference that divvied up the Balkans after the First World War.  As a consolation prize, they were splooged together with Bohemian, Moravian, Silesian, and Slovak nationalities as the eastern tail end of the newly invented composite nation-state of Czechoslovakia.  But after the Second World War, Transcarpathian Ruthenia was rewarded for defying Hitler by being forcibly integrated into the Ukrainian S.S.R.  In 1991, as Communism collapsed, Transcarpathia asked for, but was not given, its own autonomous region in the way that Crimea eventually was.  A 2008 declaration of Transcarpathian independence was considered by the Ukrainian government to be engineered by Moscow—this out of fear that Russia would do to Ukraine with Transcarpathia what it did that same year to Georgia with Abkhazia and South Ossetia.  But by this time Carpathian nationalism couldn’t possibly have much to do with Ruthenians themselves.  There are now only 10,000 or so Ruthenians out of over a million Transcarpathia oblast residents, less than 1%.  Russians are only 3%, but ethnic Magyars (Hungarians) are 12%.

The current flag of Transcarpathia
Transcarpathia’s Hungarians also seemed to want autonomy in the 1990s and 2000s, and they seem to be behind a stirring of discontent there now.  The Hungarian language was also marginalized along with Russian in post-Yanukovych Ukraine’s language reforms (referred to above).  This is causing the Transcarpathian Magyars to be suspicious that the new regime is not in their interests, and their predicament, such as it is, has also attracted the notice of far-right elements in Hungary itself. Hungary’s foreign minister, János Martonyi, visited Transcarpathia on March 1st to plead for cross-border unity between Magyars and denounce Kiev’s new language policy.  Martonyi also raised the question of the (highly nationalistic) Magyar minority in Romania’s Transylvania region as well.

The far-right Jobbik party makes up over a tenth of Hungary’s parliament,
and they are taking a keen interest in developments just over the border in Ukraine.
On the other hand, a less conciliatory tone was taken by Hungary’s radical, far-right, neo-fascist opposition party Jobbik, Movement for a Better Hungary (Jobbik Magyarországért Mozgalom).  Jobbik’s second-ranking party leader, Márton Gyöngyösisaid on March 3rd that Hungarians and Ruthenians in Transcarpathia should have their language rights restored, should be exempt from the military draft, and should be given “full territorial autonomy.”  Jobbik is perhaps best known to western media because its former leader, Csanád Szegedi, a member of the European Parliament who like his fellow party members was unrepentantly anti-Semitic, was revealed in 2012 (as reported at the time in this blog) to be Jewish himself.  (He resigned and later embraced his ancestral Orthodox Jewish faith.)  Jobbik, which controls 11% of the seats in Hungary’s legislature, regards the current, post-Yanukovych regime in Kiev as illegitimate—which is ironic, because that puts them on the same page as Putin and Russia, who are busily demonizing the Ukrainian political mainstream as infiltrated by exactly the sort of neo-Nazis that Jobbik actually are.

Csanád Szegedi traded his armband in
for a yarmulke.
Things in Transcarpathia could get messy very quickly.  But Ukraine as a whole may well be headed for collapse, engineered from without.

A member of the Ukrainian feminist political collective Femen
arrested today outside the Crimean parliament building in Simferopol
[You can read more about these and many other separatist and new-nation movements, both famous and obscure, in my new book, a sort of encyclopedic atlas just published by Litwin Books under the title Let’s Split! A Complete Guide to Separatist Movements and Aspirant Nations, from Abkhazia to Zanzibar.  The book, which contains 46 maps and 554 flags (or, more accurately, 554 flag images), is available for order now on Amazon.  Meanwhile, please “like” the book (even if you haven’t read it yet) on Facebook and see this interview for more information on the book.]

1 comment:

  1. "The big question is whether he will try to pull a Crimea-type stunt in predominantly-Russian parts of the eastern and southern parts of the Ukrainian mainland " An American married to a Ukrainian who lived and did business in the Ukraine for 10 years is writing a series for Forbes where he quotes a lot more Ukrainian sources than most western writers. He points out that massing troops on the Ukraine's eastern borders, actually occupying the Crimea and surrounding/firing at Ukrainian troops has alienated both Ukrainian and Russian-speaking Ukrainians.


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