Thursday, April 17, 2014

West Watches Helplessly as Declaration of “Odessa People’s Republic” Hastens Dismemberment of Ukraine

Amid news of the chaos in eastern Ukraine—where, as I am writing this, the latest reports are of a dozen or more key government buildings in the control of “Donetsk People’s Republic” activists, with lots of conflicting reports as to Ukrainian defectors and casualties—a perhaps momentous declaration was made in an ethnic-Russian-populated area at the other end of Ukraine, in Odessa.  For many Westerners, Odessa is known only as the city whose famous “Odessa Steps” were used to stage one of the most riveting images in 20th-century cinema: in Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 silent film Battleship Potemkin, about a 1905 anti-Czarist mutiny, a baby-carriage is let loose and tumbles down these steps during a bloody massacre, the mother struck dead by a Cossack rifle.  Nearly a century later, it is still difficult to watch this scene and sit still.  As film viewers, all we can do is watch helplessly and wait to see if the carriage tips over or reaches the bottom intact, or doesn’t.  It is something like the feeling that most in the West have as we watch a European nation of 45 million people attacked, invaded, and dismembered by a populist ultranationalist lunatic at the helm of one of the largest militaries in the world.  There is little we can do but watch and wait—or avert our eyes in horror, as film-goers did in 1925.

A statement on the website of Odessa’s “Anti-Maidan” group announced on April 16th, “Beginning today, the Odessa region becomes the People’s Republic of Odessa, where the power belongs only to the people living on its territory.”  It added, “At 16:00 tomorrow, Odessa must get blocked!  Literally.  Everybody who has not yet realized that the war had come to our houses should not go to work tomorrow.  ...   If you do not want a war that turns our country into ruins, like Syria and Libya, that costs thousands of lives, then you have to act.  Odessa is already surrounded by enemy checkpoints.  A state of war has already been declared in the country.”  Though of course it is President Vladimir Putin’s Russia, with a stealth military invasion that it continues to deny, that is plunging the Ukrainian mainland into civil war.

This declaration has so far not been accompanied by the physical takeover of administrative buildings, as has been the case in the eponymous capital cities of the three other separatist entities declared in the east, the People’s Republics of Donetsk, Lugansk, and Kharkov.  Nor have there been reports that the public is being acting on the separatists’ call to arms.  But it is clear that Odessa Oblast, between the Black Sea and Moldova, where Russian-speakers outnumber Ukrainian-speakers, is a place Putin has his eye on.

Pro-Russian demonstrators in Odessa
Donetsk Oblast, with its agricultural and industrial resources and the highest proportion of Russian-speakers of any Ukrainian oblast outside the now-all-but-surrendered Crimea, is where Russia has been concentrating most of its efforts so far, with a whole string of towns now more or less under the control of pro-Russian mobs almost certainly augmented by trained covert Russian troops taking direct orders from Moscow.  It is in Slovyansk, Donetsk Oblast’s second city, that Russian and Ukrainian troops are facing one another on the ground as I write this.  In two other mostly-Russian-speaking oblasts in the east, Luhansk (Lugansk, in Russian) and Kharkiv (Kharkov), the capital cities are seeing key buildings under pro-Russian control, but the hinterlands are so far not very affected.  So far there has been relatively little pro-Russian militancy in the two Ukrainian-majority oblasts between Odessa and Crimea—Kherson and Mykolayiv (Nikolayev)—but in Zaporizhia, the last of the truly majority-Russian-speaking oblasts, there are reports that so-called “self-defense forces” (i.e., pro-Russian mobs) are organizing themselves.

Odessa is crucial to Putin’s plans not only because of its long Czarist history but because it is adjacent to the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic (a.k.a. Transnistria, a.k.a. Transdniestria), a sliver of eastern Moldova where Moldovans are in the minority and which declared independence in 1991 in much the same way Crimea did early this year.  Transnistria is occupied by Russian troops and propped up economically by Moscow, but Russia has not recognized it diplomatically in the way that it has its two similar puppet states within the Republic of Georgia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.  But Transnistria has recently asked for diplomatic recognition from Moscow and for eventual incorporation, like Crimea, into the Russian Federation.  That would be difficult for Russia to do without also controlling Odessa.  Odessa is so close to Crimea by sea, and Crimea so close to Krasnodar Krai in Russia proper, that it would not be necessary for Russia to annex Kherson and Mykolayiv—where the Ukrainian majorities would presumably be more resistant—in order to create a safe corridor to Transnistria from the Russian mainland, though it is not impossible that those oblast’s more-Russian-populated coasts could be secured.

Transnistrian foreign minister Nina Shtanski’s newest fashion statement is these fetching shades from
the Wojciech Jaruzelski Collection.  They say, “I’m a puppet state—and I’m feeling confident today.”
But is this going to happen?  Well, in his question-and-answer press conference yesterday, Putin finally admitted that he had indeed, despite his protestations at the time, sent an advance covert military force into Crimea before its secession from Ukraine, though he still denies that this is what is happening right now in Donetsk.  He also said, for the first time, that he reserved the right to intervene militarily in the Ukrainian mainland to “protect” Russians and Russian interests there, and he described the current Ukrainian military moves against the pro-Russian separatists as “criminal.”  This reverses his earlier statement that he had no plans to do that.  In light of the fact that the events in Ukraine Putin says is “responding to” are events that he himself has staged, it becomes frighteningly clear that a Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine will come soon.

An alternate Odessa separatist flag to that used on the Anti-Maidan website (see above)
As Putin himself put it this morning, “Kharkiv, Lugansk, Donetsk, Odessa were not part of Ukraine in Czarist times, they were transferred in 1920.  Why?  God knows.  Then for various reasons these areas were gone, and the people stayed there—we need to encourage them to find a solution.  We must do everything to help these people to protect their rights and independently determine their own destiny.”

Hmm, what to gobble up next?
The Ukrainian military is clearly powerless to stop Putin’s irredentist juggernaut should he decide to set it in motion.  Only the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).  But perhaps “losing” Ukraine, or half of it, is preferable to nuclear war?  For now, keep your eye on Odessa.

Our sentiments exactly.
[You can read more about Crimea, Luhansk, Donetsk, 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. "Native russian speakers" is a misleading definition.
    Not all native russian speakers are russian. Many of them are ukrainians, who learnt russian before ukrainian because of russian was the official language of the Soviet Union.
    But they remain and feel ukrainians, even if they speak russian better than ukrainian.
    This "confusion" is useful for Putin, but shouldn't be used by USA and Europe.

  2. sometines yes, sometimes not+++ i remember when jugoslavia *or south slavia( was broken into pieces...each nation *germany, france, usa...( played its own game, its own horse> croatia, slovenia, serbia, bosnia, macedonia, etc and later kosono montenegro and still they could support voivdina or muslim serbia...and endless game+++ sometimes right and sometimes wrong+++
    imagine united kingdom being broken!!! *scotland, ireland, wales etc(