Mainstream discourse on the current humanitarian crisis in Ukraine is fixed upon a single analysis, one with very little nuance or dissenting voices: that Russian President Vladimir Putin is responsible for the present situation. That his actions represent an offensive aggression and escalation which is predicated upon his insistence of expanding the Russian Federation toward the recreation of a 21st century USSR-style empire; that Putin, after aggressively taking Crimea by force, now plans on extending his aggression towards other countries in Russia’s neighborhood as well. It follows from this analysis that a myriad of sanctions are required to curb the incorrigible authoritarian, and a beefing up of NATO forces in allied states in eastern Europe, along with further aid and security cooperation towards the Western-backed government in Kiev, are necessary maneuvers to repel the expansionist policies of Russia and to ensure peace and security in Russia’s immediate neighborhood and outreach of influence.
The conventional wisdom holds that Russia is continuously escalating the conflict in Ukraine, sending in more troops and heavy armaments, including tanks and regular Russian army formations, in an attempt to destabilize the country and prevent the explicit will of the Ukrainian people to seek further cooperation with Europe from coming to fruition, all with a view to keeping Ukraine weak and fragmented so as to continue asserting its imperialist strangle-hold over the region. In other words, Putin is acting to keep Ukraine at a tributary/vassal status that is subordinate to Russia, while the Europeans and the West are attempting to free Ukraine from its colonial bonds, merely offering them a chance of further economic integration that Russia is vehemently opposed to. The argument goes that since the Ukrainians expressed a determination to align themselves closer to Europe, that Russia responded by taking Crimea and invading eastern Ukraine. Within this perspective, the ouster of President Yanukovich in February merely provided the pretext for Russia’s seizing of territory.
Although a degree of truth is found within this line of thinking, mainly that Russia’s actions are not solely benevolent ones aimed at preserving humanitarian wellbeing and instead represent geopolitical power-play dynamics, much of these accounts are flawed, and miss the main point of the matter altogether: that the cause of the current crisis in Ukraine was mainly the fault of the West, and that President Putin has been acting defensively in the face of Western expansion and escalation, the reasons for which are by and large wholly legitimate and rational to comprehend. The United States and the European Union are the aggressors, and Russia is responding to a conflict that it did not ask for, did not instigate, and that it nonetheless found itself facing with no other options left but to respond.
Russian Attempts Against EU Integration
It is a common position to take in the West that from the very start of the tug-of-war negotiations in Ukraine regarding the economic trade agreements offered by the EU and Russia respectively, that Russia was playing hardball, resorting to “arrogance and bullying,” which “mainly consisted of threats and insults,” as stated by The Economist and others. Little is spoken in the media about the political dealings on the European side, instead we only hear pronouncements of how constructive and reasonable the EU package was. There is a different perspective however, seldom heard, but one that is at least worthy of a mention.
At the 10th annual meeting of Yalta European Strategy in Yalta, Crimea, in September of 2013, there was hosted a meeting by Ukrainian oligarch Viktor Pinchuk which consisted of some of the biggest names in politics and business from Europe, the United States, and Ukraine, who convened to discuss the future of Ukraine and its relations with Europe, mainly in terms of the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) that was then being negotiated. Attendees included Bill and Hillary Clinton, David Patraeus, Larry Summers, Tony Blair, Shimon Peres, Carl Bildt, as well as both then Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich and his soon-to-be successor Petro Poroshenko. Also present was one of Putin’s economic advisors, Sergei Glazyev, who alone conveyed the Russian position to the other delegates.
The striking difference however between the two sides was the way in which each spoke on the likely impacts of the agreement. The European side spoke in idealistic generalities, such as talk of Ukraine finally realizing its historic brotherhood with the West, with very little to say about the harsh realities of transition that the economic reforms would necessitate. Glazyev, on the other hand, was much more pragmatic, pointing to specific economic calculations that he argued would harm Europe as well as Ukraine.
Forbes’ Russian specialist Mark Adomanis reported at the time,
“But one of the truly fascinating things that I noticed at Yalta was the stark differences between the Russian and Western views not over the advisability of Ukraine’s integration with the EU, but over its likely impact. The EU and Ukrainian view was, without simplifying things too greatly, that passage of the DCFTA would put Ukraine on a path of rapid economic convergence with the developed West. Multiple references were made to the extremely positive impact that Poland’s association agreement had on its trade profile, and the pro-EU crowd spoke in only the most general possible terms about the “pain” that would be associated with economic restructuring. Signing the DCFTA might not be a panacea, but people made it sound like a pretty close approximation.“The Russians, in contrast, spoke not in vague generalities (“historic fate” “common roots” “Slavic brotherhood” etc.) but made a number of very specific and pointed economic criticisms about the DCFTA and its likely short and medium-term impact on Ukraine’s economy.”
The Russian case against Ukraine’s integration with the EU, Adomanis reports, consisted of pointing out that Ukraine was already running an enormous foreign accounts deficit, one that was funded by foreign borrowing, and that Ukraine’s ability to borrow was extremely limited, that a substantial increase in imports brought on by the DCFTA would increase the foreign deficit even more, and therefore would lead to default unless a sizeable bailout was in order to prevent it.
Mr. Adomanis goes on to highlight the merit found within the Russian argument, concluding that, “the Russian position is far closer to the truth than the happy talk coming from Brussels and Kiev.”
Following this meeting, the EU continued to push for this agreement, despite the perceived costs that it would entail, guided by what Professor Mearsheimer defines as a flawed view of international politics, one in which Western leaders, “tend to believe that the logic of realism holds little relevance in the twenty-first century and that Europe can be kept whole and free on the basis of such liberal principles as the rule of law, economic inter-dependence, and democracy.” (Foreign Affairs, September/October 2014)
Amidst the growing protests which were escalated by the stalling of Yanukovich to sign the EU agreement, President Yanukovich and Putin proposed a three-way talk between Russia, Ukraine, and the EU to hash out the differences between the parties and come to a cooperative agreement. This proposition is not surprising given Russia’s pragmatic approach thus far. Also not surprising was the EU’s reaction, the Europeans flat out rejected the tripartite discussions, stating as a precondition to any cooperative discussion that Yanukovich must commit to signing the EU agreement. The Europeans thus forced upon Yanukovich an ultimatum, stating that Ukraine must choose between the EU and Russia, and rejected any attempts for talks between the two parties. If the mainstream argument is true, and the EU was merely just attempting to benignly fulfil the Ukrainian wish to embark on closer relations with Europe, and that Russia really was playing hardball to make sure that this never happened, how come it was the EU and not Russia who forced an ultimatum on Yanukovich? How come it was Russia who was willing to cooperate with the EU to settle any differences between them, while it was the EU who rejected any such cooperation? There was absolutely no need for the Europeans to play a zero-sum game. There was no reason to force Ukraine to choose between either Russia or Europe. If it weren’t for the EU’s ultimatum, a compromise could have been fleshed out.
It is no surprise that Yanukovich then decided to sign with Russia over Europe. Despite the fact that the Russian deal was much more generous and better for the Ukrainian economy, it also did not preclude any further Ukrainian agreements with the EU, neither did it have any military provisions that would have subjected Ukraine to Russia’s defense policies; the EU deal however would have prevented the signing of any Russian agreements, as well as subordinating Ukraine to compliance with Europe’s defense and security policy- i.e. NATO.
The Western consensus is thus demonstrably false, it was the EU, and not Russia, who was forcing Ukraine into its sphere of influence and away from its competitors; it was the EU who was playing a zero-sum game.
“Peaceful” Protestors and EuroMaidan “Revolution”
Following Yanukovich’s decision to sign a $15 billion Russian counteroffer instead of the EU association agreement back in December of 2013, the antigovernment demonstrations and protests escalated and in the coming month increasingly grew more violent, sparking clashes between the Ukrainian security forces and the protestors, resulting in upwards of a hundred deaths. Although the EuroMaidan protestors were mainly organizing against the Yanukovich regime due to legitimate and understandable grievances that they had with the corruption, oligarchical control, and overall ineptitude of the Ukrainian government, one cannot rule out the role that the United States played in fomenting and encouraging this anti-Yanukovich behavior and revolutionary sentiments.
Western interference into Ukrainian politics goes back at least a decade to the 2004 Orange Revolution, in which US-sponsored NGO’s, funded by the likes of the Congress-supported National Endowment for Democracy, encouraged antigovernment activism and demonstrations. Victoria Nuland, US Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasian Affairs, recently boasted that the United States has since 2004 spent a total of $5 billion in “promoting democracy and progress” in Ukraine. This funding, along with the assistance of the United States 150 NGO’s within the region, fomented anti-Yanukovich sentiments and aimed political action against the Ukrainian government with a view toward regime-change. This social engineering, coupled with justifiable grievances of the citizenry, sparked a mass antigovernment movement in Ukraine, one which was increasingly Russophobic in nature and which was also being propelled forward by right-wing, extremist elements.
As the violence increased and the US-backed political leaders lost control of the protests, neo-fascist militants gained more influence and escalated the fight against the police and security forces, throwing Molotov cocktails, beating police with sticks and baseball bats, and brandishing various weaponry and handguns. All throughout this process the Obama administration gave unwavering political and diplomatic support to the protests, backing their legitimacy by proclaiming through the Western media that the protesters were “peaceful” and “democratic” in nature. This, in turn, was understood by the extremists as a green-light to continue their actions, it in effect sanctioned their violence and encouraged them to continue participating in it.
US officials also participated in the demonstrations, Victoria Nuland expressed her solidarity by handing out snacks and treats to the protestors, while Republican Senator John McCain met with the EuroMaidan leaders which included the leader of the ultra-nationalist organization Svoboda, which the European parliament itself denounced back in 2011 for its fascist and undemocratic leanings
With all the recent indignation over Russia’s interference in Ukraine, an American would be hard pressed to ponder just how much different the United States would have reacted if Chinese or Iranian statesmen were openly participating in anti-American protests aimed at toppling the governments of Canada or Mexico, let alone if they were funding them for decades, or supporting and encouraging extremist elements within them who were guilty of escalating violence against the security forces.
The violence culminated on February 20th, one of the bloodiest days of demonstrations when snipers shot and killed both protestors and police alike. These killings were immediately blamed on the Yanukovich regime, citing the brutality of the Berkut and other police forces as an example for the type of harsh repression that the Ukrainian president was capable of committing against the protests. But evidence soon came to light with the releasing of a phone conversation in which the Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet explained the evidence linking the shootings to a possible false-flag attack carried out by members of the opposition, citing the fact that both protesters and police were shot by the same snipers, and that the coalition that would assume power in Kiev had not carried out any meaningful attempts at investigating the incident. To this day the government in Kiev has not carried out an investigation or attempted to bring anyone to justice for the atrocity, and the event has since evaporated from the public consciousness, lost within a succession of other atrocities, events, political disputes, and arguments from either side.
The direct result of these shootings, the answer to the cui bono question, was that pressure was effectively exerted upon the Yanukovich regime and forced a capitulation on his part. On February 21st diplomats from the EU, delegates from the opposition, and Yanukovich signed an agreement, with Russian approval and witness, that allowed the president to stay in power only until new elections were scheduled for a much sooner date in December, which also stipulated that the government would pull back the police and security forces. The next day the police were cleared from the Maidan, the extremist ultra-nationalists descended upon the capital, and Yanukovich fled for his life. The agreement in which the government capitulated to the opposition’s demands was thus thrown out the window, and the government instead was displaced by an illegal and unconstitutional coup; the parliament was rearranged, militants from the protests were given positions of power, and the US-supported opposition leaders were made heads of state.
Victoria “fuck the EU” Nuland, her infamous words leaked in a recording in which she openly discussed with US Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt her preference for Yatsenyuk to head the new ruling coalition over the EU’s choice Vitaly Klitschko, saw where the EuroMaidan was heading and openly planned a restructuring of the Ukrainian government in the US’s favor (and at the expense of the EU) given the contingency of a coup. After one occurred, it was her man “Yats” who was granted the appointment of Ukrainian Prime Minister. Opposition leaders who were responsible for leading the militant actions of the protests, who can legitimately be labelled neo-fascists, were also given authority over the Ukrainian army, national security, and police forces. Thus, the result of the EuroMaidan “revolution” was the disposition of the Ukrainian constitution and elected president, and the imposition of Western-backed diplomats and leaders of neo-Nazi parties into key positions of power within the government.
Directly following the coup in Kiev popular protest movements broke out throughout Ukraine, mostly concentrated in the south-eastern regions and the semi-autonomous region of Crimea. These protests emphasized the divided nature of the country, who’s historical, cultural, and political disagreements are largely separated among lines between the east and west of the country. The protests were a response against the unconstitutional coup and transfer of power in Kiev, where the areas of the country with historical, cultural, linguistic, and marital ties to Russia largely held the new governing coalition in Kiev to be illegitimate and against their interests. The coup in effect transferred political power in the central government from the eastern regions to the west, whereas after the extremist and US-backed leaders assumed power a campaign to silence any dissent was instigated in the capital, resulting in the absence of political representation from the south-eastern regions.
America’s leading Russian scholar, Professor Stephen F. Cohen, describes these divisions,
“Considering those preceding events, but above all the country’s profound historical divisions, particularly between its western and eastern regions—ethnic, linguistic, religious, cultural, economic and political—the rebellion in the southeast, centered in the industrial Donbass, was not surprising. Nor were its protests against the unconstitutional way (in effect, a coup) the new government had come to power, the southeast’s sudden loss of effective political representation in the capital and the real prospect of official discrimination.”
The new authorities in Kiev immediately began their rule on the basis of Russophobic sentiments and a hatred towards Russia and the nation’s Russian-speaking population, attempting as their first order of business to reject the Russian language as having an official status throughout the country. The parliamentary decision was rejected by the sitting president Turchinov, but the fact that a foundational and unifying aspect of the new political leadership in Kiev consisted strongly of opposition to Russian culture and ethnicity cannot be denied. A country divided upon ethnic, cultural, and historic lines cannot be unified through hatred and disenfranchisement of a large section of the population, however this is exactly what the Kiev regime sought to do as future events would go on to show.
There now existed a legitimate threat against the majority ethnic Russian population of Crimea, where Russian ethnicity makes up roughly 60% of the population. The threat was that the EuroMaidan would spread into Crimea, given its semi-autonomous status and extensively different political leanings which consisted of a much closer affinity toward Russia and opposition towards EU and NATO integration, key aspects of the EuroMaidan protest movements. The extremist’s elements, now given important positions of authority in the new Ukrainian government, were also ramping up anti-Russian hate speech and silencing anyone who sympathized with the uprisings in the east, key examples of this include the threats and intimidation against television media executives and the subsequent beating up and humiliating of pro-Russian presidential candidates.
Faced with antagonism towards their majority ethnicity, the threat of political disenfranchisement given their dissenting positions from those of the ruling coalition in Kiev, and the distinct possibility that Kiev would attempt to claim Crimea by force if they didn’t adhere to central governmental policies, the people of Crimea revolted and demanded that their parliament hold a referendum for further autonomy from the Kiev regime. The main threat was always political disenfranchisement, although the possibility of violence against the ethnic Russians from the extremist influence in the Kiev government was also well founded.
Putin saw the transfer of power in Kiev as an illegitimate coup, one that was brought about by heavy Western influence and aggressive attempts to force Ukraine out of Russia’s sphere of influence and into the hostile military alliance of NATO, claims that are not unfounded given the EU’s ultimatum in terms of the association agreement, the agreements military and defense clauses, and in a broader sense the overall United States decades-long policy of NATO expansion despite past assurances to Russia that NATO would not expand “one inch to the east,” a commitment that was immediately broken in the 1990’s by the Clinton administration and which now is directly threatening upon Russia’s doorstep.
There is a doctrine in the United States, known as the Monroe Doctrine, still invoked in recent American history, whose foundational aspect is one which states that the United States will not accept any country within the Western Hemisphere from forming a military alliance with a distant power, thus threatening our national security and regional hegemony. Understood within this context, the seizure of power in Kiev by Western influence and its attempts to incorporate a country upon Russia’s border into NATO can easily be understood as a direct strategic threat to Russia, and Putin’s subsequent response as a defensive maneuver to protect the strategically important Crimean region, its access to the warm-water ports of the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea, and its Black Sea Fleet military base which is a core aspect of Russia’s national security. There was also significant pressure upon Putin to do something about the ethnic Russian population in Crimea that was now facing real threats of discrimination.
Shortly after the coup in Kiev Putin responded, utilizing the 25,000 Russian troops that were allowed to be stationed at the Black Sea Fleet base to quickly consolidate the peninsula, securing key infrastructure and locations while encircling the Ukrainian military bases and troops stationed there. This whole process took about 3 days, and was accomplished without bloodshed, without “a shot fired.”
Esteemed Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago John J. Mearsheimer describes the events as such,
“Mr. Putin, of course, didn’t see things that way. He viewed these developments as a direct threat to Russia’s core strategic interests.
Who can blame him? After all, the United States, which has been unable to leave the Cold War behind, has treated Russia as a potential threat since the early 1990s and ignored its protests about NATO’s expansion and its objections to America’s plan to build missile defense systems in Eastern Europe.
One might expect American policymakers to understand Russia’s concerns about Ukraine joining a hostile alliance. After all, the United States is deeply committed to the Monroe Doctrine, which warns other great powers to stay out of the Western Hemisphere.
But few American policymakers are capable of putting themselves in Mr. Putin’s shoes. This is why they were so surprised when he moved additional troops into Crimea, threatened to invade eastern Ukraine, and made it clear Moscow would use its considerable economic leverage to undermine any regime in Kiev that was hostile to Russia.”
During this process, a large number of over half of the Ukrainian servicemen stationed in the region defected to the Crimean side, the Crimean parliament elected a new Pro-Russian leader, and announced a referendum to decide if Crimea would remain a part of Ukraine or secede to Russia. Russian consolidation and control of the peninsula thus accomplished two things: it maintained Russian control over the Black Sea Fleet military base and prevented it from falling to a virulently anti-Russian, Western-backed government in Kiev whose foundational political principle relied upon antagonism toward Russia, as well as providing the population the opportunity for self-determination.
Criticisms in the West of the Crimean referendum vote are unfounded and belied by the many corroborating reports by international observers, who stated that the voting was free from intimidation, and the large voter-turnout a result of the people’s willingness to have their voices heard. The overwhelming majority decided to secede to Russia and break ties from Ukraine, not surprising given the majority ethnic Russian population, and the fact that Crimea was historically always a part of Russia, only recently given quite whimsically to Ukraine by Khrushchev in the 1950s.
Russia respected the peoples vote, and annexed Crimea into the Russian Federation. The political uprisings were thus concentrated within the eastern regions of Ukraine, mainly in Luhansk and Donetsk, where the difference between Russia’s actions there versus those in Crimea are telling of its intentions, as well as of the flawed Western interpretation of events.
The War for the Donbass
If there was ever an example of the threat of political disenfranchisement and violence that the Russian consolidation of Crimea prevented against, it is the subsequent events that followed in the eastern regions concentrated mostly in Luhansk and Donetsk, otherwise referred to as the Donbass region.
As political protest movements sparked within these regions against the government in Kiev, calls for autonomy and referendums similar to the one in Crimea became a key staple of the population’s demands. Also key was the rejection of the legitimacy of the new Ukrainian government, as well as the insistence that their primary language of Russian continue to be respected as an official language. A report produced in March showed that three quarters of those surveyed in the east rejected the popular revolt in Kiev, and between as many as 70 to 90 percent of the residents said that Russian, and not Ukrainian, was their primary language. Thus congregations of protesters formed voicing these demands, and popular leaders emerged amongst the crowd.
Kiev now had a choice, it could respect the calls for political inclusivity from the protestors and go about a path of political and constitutional reforms through inclusive, national dialogue in an attempt to unify the country and adhere to the political rights of the entire Ukrainian population, not only those of the western regions, or it could go about uniting the country in an altogether different way; it could attempt to crush the protests by force. Immediately Kiev embarked on a policy of arresting activist and protest leaders in the east, and instituted their own hand-picked regional authorities throughout the regions, a policy that obviously sparked greater anti-Kiev sentiments and escalated the protests against the government. The Nazi, fascist parties of Svoboda and Right Sector began exerting increased pressure upon the Kiev authorities to act more harshly to silence these protests which they saw as anti-Ukrainian in nature and a result of Russian invaders destabilizing their country, not an unexpected position given Mussolini’s definition of fascism and its adherence to the sole central control of the state; any calls for democracy, self-determination, and acceptance of individual political and civil rights that differed from the positions of the state would understandably be interpreted as anti-nationalistic and therefore necessitate suppression by those who adhered to these ideologies. Perceived within this context, the subsequent actions of the Kiev authorities can accurately be described as fascistic in nature.
Throughout this time Russia was urging Kiev to do a few things: mainly to hold an inclusive, nationwide dialogue in order to work out and implement constitutional reforms that would respect the rights of the disparate population, to institute a form of federalization that would guarantee the regions in the east greater autonomy and authority over their affairs, then to have direct regional elections to decide regional authorities, and finally to hold national elections to determine a democratically elected government and to grant the Russian language official status. It was never within Russia’s interests to have a war, and from day one they have been calling for a political rather than military solution to the problem.
Amidst these calls the authorities in Kiev refused to hold a dialogue with the east, and as the protest movement consolidated control of administration buildings and the police forces, surrounding their headquarters and demanding that the police declare their allegiance “to the people,” instead of to Kiev, officially control was lost and the Ukrainian government therefore branded the entire protest movement as “terrorists” and launched a military offensive against their own population in the region. This action directly followed the secret visit of CIA director John Brennan to advise the new Kiev regime. Under the watchful gaze of US consultation, Kiev had chosen to crush the popular uprisings by force.
At first this didn’t go well for Kiev, and something remarkable happened: videos and news reports began to surface showing peaceful citizens of the east, mothers, children, boys, girls, even grandmothers defiantly meeting the tanks and heavy weaponry of the governments military machine demanding that the servicemen disarm, asking them who were they planning to attack, emphasizing that they are moving against their own Ukrainian citizens, against their brothers, their own flesh and blood, their own people.
The servicemen disarmed their assault rifles, and the tanks were sent back to Kiev, and on April 17th an agreement was signed by Russia and Kiev which stipulated that all sides would disarm, that a Constitutional Assembly and inclusive national dialogue be formed, and that citizens of each region would elect their own authorities, and that a democratic central government would be formed through direct popular elections. This didn’t last long however, the rebels in the east did not disband, untrusting of the government to actually heed their concerns, and the authorities in Kiev showed no signs of attempting to negotiate with the rebels, their withdrawal and heeding of the protestors demands being the first step necessary for the success of any peace settlement; soon a new anti-terrorist offensive was launched directly after US Vice President Joe Biden visited Kiev to offer his consultation and support, and the murder and destruction of the citizens in the east ensued under the direction, patronage, and approval of the United States government.
Amidst the fighting a new atrocity was carried out, one that quickly overshadowed the original brutality of the Maidan sniper shootings. On May 2nd a mob of neo-Nazi Right Sector supporters, with the joint help of the Ukrainian police force, begging the possibility of collusion with the Kiev authorities, descended upon an anti-Kiev peaceful protest camp stationed in the southern Ukrainian region of Odessa. A wholesale massacre ensued, reportedly more than 40 people, though many estimates after-the-fact put the number above 100, were forced to take shelter within a nearby administration building and were subsequently burned alive inside by the neo-Nazi mob; anyone who tried to escape the engulfing flames was shot at or beaten to death, all of this captured in dramatic fashion on video for the world to see. Pictures of the dead afterwards showed the charred and burnt bodies as they attempted to escape their fate. The authorities in Kiev were silent, the Western press refused to run the story, and therefore the Western populace and large parts of the world were completely unaware of the incident, its brutality effectively silenced and erased from history.
These refusals of Kiev to address the political disenfranchisement and discrimination faced in the eastern regions, as well as its actions of brutally crushing the protests by force, coupled with its willful actions of turning a blind eye to the massacres and atrocities that its own indifference was allowing to happen with impunity, only further proves what was spared of the Crimean population as a result of the Russian consolidation and annexation of the region, which surely would have been the fate in Crimea had those actions not occurred.
On the backdrop of Kiev refusing to form a political solution with the eastern regions and their insistence on maintaining their dominance throughout the entire country by use of force, Putin covertly backed the rebellion movements, which turned to armed resistance once their demands for political enfranchisement went unheeded by the central authorities, making sure to keep any support small and deniable, mostly small arms, advisors, and diplomatic support, yet while also making sure that Kiev would not be able to conquer the region.
People chose to label the rebels as separatists, but in the beginning their calls were not for separation, they instead wanted to stay apart of Ukraine, only with greater autonomy and control over their own affairs, yet as the hostilities and war against them continued the talk increasingly became of separation, full independence, and alliance with Russia. Putin thus saw Kiev’s unwillingness to accept a political solution, and its subsequent attacks on the protests in the east as an attempt of the West to assert its influence over the entire region, threatening that the entire Ukraine would fall into the hands of NATO, ruled by an openly hostile anti-Russian, pro-Western government. This was unacceptable, and he began to push back hard, supporting the rebels militarily and diplomatically, while utilizing the economic leverage he had over Ukraine and Europe in general. Yet his actions towards the east in comparison to Crimea are striking.
Immediately Putin began distancing himself from the eastern rebels, and when they initially decided to hold a referendum on independence from Ukraine, Putin publicly rejected it, and urged the rebels to call it off entirely. He refused to openly support the rebels as he did in Crimea, and kept any support he did give them small and deniable. Throughout this process he continued to call for a political solution, for Kiev to respect its agreements made on April 17th, and to call off the anti-terrorist operation and hold a dialogue with the east and come to a peaceful, political settlement. Many argue that Putin wishes to destabilize Ukraine, to keep it weak so he can exert his control over its people, but after taking Crimea and securing the military base there, Russia does not need, or want to annex the eastern regions of Ukraine, and if he really did harbor imperialist designs for the region he would have shown some signs of it before the February 22nd coup, which he did not. The best thing for Putin is to have a peaceful Ukraine that can serve as a bridge between East and West, not one that is hostile toward Russia. Thus his actions reflect a strategically defensive attempt to stop Western expansion into the whole of Ukraine, a response to a direct threat to Russia’s national security, by means of exploiting the legitimate grievances and Russian-ties of the rebels by supporting their attempts at autonomy from Kiev and attempting to keep their movement alive while calling for a political solution from the authorities in the Ukrainian government. Any talk of “protecting” greater-Europe from Russia’s aggression is therefore absurd, and reflects a complete ignorance to the realities on the ground.
John Mearsheimer explains further,
“If Putin were committed to creating a greater Russia, signs of his intentions would have almost certainly have arisen before February 22. But there is virtually no evidence that he was bent on taking Crimea, much less any other territory in Ukraine, before that date… Putin’s actions in Crimea took them [Western leaders] by complete surprise and appear to have been a spontaneous reaction to Yanukovych’s ouster… Putin surely understands that trying to subdue Ukraine would be like swallowing a porcupine. His response to events there has been defensive, not offensive.” (Foreign Affairs, September/October 2014)
The Fight Continues
The election for the current Ukrainian President Poroshenko went unattended by those in the east, emphasizing the political disenfranchisement of the rebels, as they did not have any representation within the candidate selection, which underscores the divide and disunity among the country and the central authorities inability to reconcile this reality, mainly due to its unwillingness to confront the true causes of the disunity.
Kiev, whose illegitimate seizure of power and unwillingness to reconcile calls for political inclusivity in the east, which were the cause of this conflict, have thus remained committed to a policy of blaming Russia for the problems they themselves have created, attempting to brand Russia as the aggressor, and themselves as the defenders, when the reality is exactly the opposite. Amidst this policy, and the ongoing massacre’s that the military operation has been committing against its own population in the east, which the OSCE recently reported as being “dire,” stating further that, “The OTs continued to receive numerous accounts of severe destruction caused by artillery fire which resulted in the interruption of water, gas and electricity supplies, the latter apparently unavailable for more than five weeks in some areas including Luhansk city itself,” the Kiev government has continued to shell civilian territory, producing a manufactured humanitarian crisis that has claimed the lives of more than 2,000 people thus far, roughly equivalent to the murder recently committed by the Israeli regime against the defenseless population of Gaza.
Leading Russian expert Stephen F. Cohen further describes the ongoing assault,
“Instead of interpreting the Odessa massacre as an imperative for restraint, Kiev intensified its “anti-terrorist operation.” Since May, the regime has sent a growing number of armored personnel carriers, tanks, artillery, helicopter gunships and warplanes to southeastern cities, among them, Slovyansk (Slavyansk in Russian), Mariupol, Krasnoarmeisk, Kramatorsk, Donetsk and Luhansk (Lugansk in Russian). When its regular military units and local police forces turned out to be less than effective, willing or loyal, Kiev hastily mobilized Right Sector and other radical nationalist militias responsible for much of the violence at Maidan into a National Guard to accompany regular detachments—partly to reinforce them, partly, it seems, to enforce Kiev’s commands. Zealous, barely trained and drawn mostly from central and western regions, Kiev’s new recruits have escalated the ethnic warfare and killing of innocent civilians. (Episodes described as “massacres” soon also occurred in Mariupol and Kramatorsk.)“Initially, the “anti-terrorist” campaign was limited primarily, though not only, to rebel checkpoints on the outskirts of cities. Since May, however, Kiev has repeatedly carried out artillery and air attacks on city centers that have struck residential buildings, shopping malls, parks, schools, kindergartens, hospitals, even orphanages. More and more urban areas, neighboring towns and villages now look and sound like war zones, with telltale rubble, destroyed and pockmarked buildings, mangled vehicles, the dead and wounded in streets, wailing mourners and crying children. Conflicting information from Kiev, local resistance leaders and Moscow, as well as Washington’s silence, make it difficult to estimate the number of dead and wounded noncombatants, but Kiev’s mid-July figure of about 2,000 is almost certainly too low. The number continues to grow due also to Kiev’s blockade of cities where essential medicines, food, water, fuel and electricity are scarce, and where wages and pensions are often no longer being paid. The result is an emerging humanitarian catastrophe.“Another effect is clear. Kiev’s “anti-terrorist” tactics have created a reign of terror in the targeted cities. Panicked by shells and mortars exploding on the ground, menacing helicopters and planes flying above and fear of what may come next, families are seeking sanctuary in basements and other darkened shelters. Even The New York Times, which like the mainstream American media generally has deleted the atrocities from its coverage, described survivors in Slovyansk “as if living in the Middle Ages.” Meanwhile, an ever-growing number of refugees, disproportionately women and traumatized children, have been desperately fleeing the carnage. In late June, the UN estimated that as many as 110,000 Ukrainians had fled across the border to Russia, where authorities said the actual numbers were much larger, and about half that many to other Ukrainian sanctuaries. By mid-July, roads and trains were filled with refugees from newly besieged Luhansk and Donetsk, a city of one million and already “a ghostly shell.”“It is true, of course, that anti-Kiev rebels in these regions are increasingly well-armed (though lacking the government’s arsenal of heavy and airborne weapons), organized and aggressive, no doubt with some Russian assistance, whether officially sanctioned or not. But calling themselves “self-defense” fighters is not wrong. They did not begin the combat; their land is being invaded and assaulted by a government whose political legitimacy is arguably no greater than their own, two of their large regions having voted overwhelmingly for autonomy referenda; and, unlike actual terrorists, they have not committed acts of war outside their own communities. The French adage suggested by an American observer seems applicable: “This animal is very dangerous. If attacked, it defends itself.”
And throughout all of this, the same demands of the eastern regions remain, as does the same roadmap for a peaceful solution. A late July UN report stated that, “The report also discusses new legislation being introduced as part of the Government’s reform. It notes the recent signing of the trade agreement with the European Union that completes the Association process [In late June Poroshenko signed the original European Union association agreement whose initial rejection sparked the EuroMaidan protests] and the publication of the much anticipated new proposed amendments to the Constitution that provide for a degree of regional autonomy and the increased use of local languages. These latter two issues were at the centre of demands being made by the residents of eastern Ukraine and their not being addressed led to the current conflict.”
Kiev’s ability to follow through with these proposals and address these concerns remains the heart of the political settlement that must be made if any lasting peace is to be had in Ukraine. But in a broader sense, an agreement must be reached between Moscow and Washington, and that starts with coming to terms with the reality of the cause of the situation, only then can each individual players actions be analyzed in an accurate way: the current crisis was precipitated by the Western policy of NATO expansion and encirclement of Russia, the immediate cause being the strategy of pulling Ukraine out of Russia’s orbit and integrating it within the West with a view to widening NATO’s reach directly upon Russia’s doorstep. This process included the decades long social-engineering of Ukrainian society and the heavy-handed attempts to force an ultimatum upon Ukraine, making it choose between relations with the West or relations with Russia. Russia offered a better deal, and the signing of that deal led to escalated protests against Kiev. The subsequent fall of Kiev to the Western-backed opposition and their attempts to crush the uprisings against them through force, refusing to address their concerns for autonomy and political inclusivity, sparked a defensive maneuver by Putin to protect against Ukraine falling into the hands of a hostile, anti-Russian rule, and to prevent NATO expansion threatening its borders. To do this Putin has been covertly supporting the rebels, using economic leverage, and calling for a political solution, while Kiev and the West continues to erroneously and dishonestly portray the situation as though it was caused by Russia, when in reality it was caused by their own actions. Any meaningful settlement necessitates a change of Western policy, and a change of Western conception of the events.
“The United States and its European allies now face a choice on Ukraine. They can continue their current policy, which will exacerbate hostilities with Russia and devastate Ukraine in the process – a scenario in which everyone would come out a loser. Or they can switch gears and work to create a prosperous but neutral Ukraine, one that does not threaten Russia and allows the West to repair its relations with Moscow. With this approach, all sides would win.” (John J. Mearsheimer, Foreign Affairs, September/October 2014)