Kyiv/ Washington May 10, 2021
Antony Blinken, the new US Secretary of State visited Ukraine last week, “a country struggling to defend itself from without and reconstruct itself from within,” as the New York Times put it. He told a press conference with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on May 5 that the US remained “committed to Ukraine’s independence, to its sovereignty, to its territorial integrity.”
With the AEJ poised to announce a new Section in Kyiv, Askold Krushelnycky, a seasoned Ukrainian-American front-line correspondent, explains how vital, in a fog of lies and propaganda, is the role of investigative journalists in the ongoing conflict with Russia.
Why Ukraine’s future matters
For a country that is Europe’s largest by territory, shares borders with four EU Member States, and whose citizens are the only ones to shed blood defending EU ideals, this is a place about which most people know little.
Since its 1991 independence, it has intermittently burst into the world headlines, then just as quickly recedes from the news.
When it recaptures attention, it’s often for unenviable reasons like violent political turmoil (two revolutions since 2004), rampant government and business corruption, and Russian aggression in a conflict that has rumbled on since Moscow’s invasion in 2014.
It was at the centre of Trump’s first impeachment, in 2019, after he tried to trade vital U.S. military aid to defend Ukraine against Russia in return for dirt on his rival in the 2020 presidential race, now-US President Joe Biden, Ukraine is once again in the news amidst an upsurge in fighting against pro-Russian forces in the eastern Donbas region, and anxiety that a huge Russian military build-up on its borders – including hundreds of tanks, armoured personnel carriers, missile systems, planes, helicopters, and Navy vessels – presaged another invasion.
Although Moscow announced it would start pulling back its troops in May and has apparently started doing so, it ominously added that much of the equipment of war would remain positioned at the border. A senior Ukrainian military official told me: “What does a ‘withdrawal’ mean? Their troops could move to positions a few hours away from the stored weapons and quickly return for a surprise attack.”
So tension remains high and Ukraine is still bracing for a potentially large-scale assault to complete Putin’s original 2014 plan to occupy a huge swathe of the country. Ukraine and Russia have been at odds since 2014, when Moscow invaded and annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, then occupied Donbas.
So far the conflict seems deceptively distant. But Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania are all on its border. An overt Russian invasion would risk sparking the biggest conflict since World War Two, engulfing other parts of the continent.
Former KGB agent Vladimir Putin conducts himself less as a statesman and more as if he were running multiple, opportunistic black special ops. He may not have decided on his next move, but he will certainly continue to undermine Ukraine’s sovereignty whenever he can.
The country stands in the way of his hardly-disguised ambition to re-assemble a Russian-dominated empire in the former Soviet space. He has often said that Ukraine is “not a real nation” and part of Russia, a vital, key component of any plans to revive a Russian empire – something Ukrainians have overwhelmingly shown they reject.
Mass demonstrations in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, morphed into a revolution. In February 2014 it overthrew Ukraine’s pro-Russian and grotesquely corrupt president, Viktor Yanukovych, who had reneged on promises to forge closer ties with the West and instead wanted to cosy up to Moscow.
Ukraine had gained independence in 1991 following the USSR’s disintegration. Successive Ukrainian governments fitfully but steadily democratized their country and sought membership of the European Union and of NATO.
Despite widespread corruption, Ukrainian elections had become increasingly transparent, unpredictable, and “real” in contrast to the pre-ordained results in Russia perpetuating Putin’s rule. Ukraine posed a direct threat to Putin, as many Russians, resentful of his increasingly authoritarian methods, enviously eyed their southern neighbour’s deepening democracy and opening up to the world.
A “sphere of influence”
When Yanukovych fled to Russia Putin saw the ensuing political turmoil as an opportunity to end Ukraine’s westward course and to reel the country back within what the Kremlin regards as its rightful “sphere of influence.”
Moscow then choreographed and set in motion a “separatist rebellion” in Donbas. The so-called “rebel forces” are for the most part mercenaries from Russia and local ethnic-Russians with grudges against Ukraine and nostalgia for a Soviet Union permeated by Russian chauvinism.
The heaviest fighting was in 2014 and 2015. When Ukrainian forces looked set to overwhelm and crush the rebels, the Kremlin poured in its regular forces, including tanks and missile systems, which vastly outnumbered and outgunned the then poorly-equipped and trained Ukrainians.
Most of the estimated 14,000 Ukrainians killed so far died in 2014-15. Moscow is secretive about casualty figures for the Russian side, especially as Moscow maintains its regular military has never fought in Donbas and/ or it was merely “defending Russian-speaking citzens.”
The Kremlin continues to cling to that lie although Ukrainian forces, on many occasions, killed or captured regular Russian military. The Kremlin clamped down on Russian journalists’ reports about the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of repatriated dead Russian soldiers being secretly buried without military honours.
Western intelligence satellites identified and tracked Russian troop convoys and columns of tanks and other armoured vehicles as they rolled from their home bases in Russia into Ukraine.
Groups such as Bellingcat, using social media and other open sources, built up a comprehensive record of Russian military movements in Ukraine. Many Russian social media posts featured photos of Russian soldiers boasting they were in Ukraine.
Since independence, Ukraine’s military had become enfeebled by decades of neglect, corruption and a high command infested with Soviet-era officers often more loyal to Moscow than Kyiv.
On the eve of the 2014 Russian invasion, only about 4000 of the 130,000 within Ukraine’s military were regarded as battleworthy. The majority of its defenders were the thousands of civilian volunteers, with little or no training, who nevertheless managed to halt the onslaught by the Russian Army, Europe’s largest.
With powerful Russian forces swarming onto the battlefields to rescue their “separatist” proxies, Ukraine was forced to sign ceasefire agreements in late 2014 and early 2015 known as the Minsk Protocols that left Crimea and much of the Donbas under Russian military occupation.
After the Minsk agreements, hitherto intensive fighting gave way to daily, low-level, frequently-lethal, exchanges which have killed more and more people. Ukrainian and Russian forces, in fortifications eerily reminiscent of World War One, face off along some hundreds of kilometres of trenches, bunkers, and tunnels, sometimes less than 200 metres apart. Observers consistently conclude the Russian side is responsible for the vast majority of ceasefire violations.
Ukraine completely transformed its forces to counter the existential threat posed by Putin. In 2014, he expected his forces to occupy most of Ukraine’s east and its southern Black and Azov Sea littoral, which was to be incorporated into his empire as “Novorossiya” – New Russia.
“Novorossiyan” flags had been designed and distributed to the “separatist” forces meant to trace out the new map in blood. But unexpected Ukrainian resistance against the odds thwarted those plans and Putin was forced to stay his attempt to dismember Ukraine.
But he has never abandoned it. Instead he has kept the “frozen conflict” simmering and ready to reignite when the time is right. Tension mounted in April this year as Russia concentrated massive numbers of troops – estimated at between 100,000-150,000 – and tanks, planes, helicopters, missiles and other weapons at Ukraine’s borders.
The consensus within western military circles seems to be that Putin will not invade this time. After all, would he deploy his forces without any attempt at concealment if he was really going to attack Ukraine? Was it just a warning to President Biden of what he could do?
On the other hand Ukrainian and other military experts have noted that ground presently waterlogged from melting winter snows and thus difficult for tanks and other vehicles, will dry out in May, regarded as the best month to begin a sustained attack on Ukraine.
A Pentagon spokesman responding to Moscow’s pull-back announcement said it was “too soon to tell and to take at face value.” And although Russia has previously held large-scale manoeuvres in and around Ukrainian territory, there are new factors at play this time.
The Navalny factor
Over the last seven years of conflict Russia has several times amassed its forces at Ukraine’s borders, triggering panic, but eventually withdrawn. But this time there are some important differences. Putin is under fire domestically and internationally because of the attempt to murder his main political opponent, Alexander Navalny, and Russia’s growing economic decline.
Like many other dictators, Putin has long become an expert in deflecting uncomfortable attention by inventing external military threats – in this case a Ukraine that his forces have already partly occupied.
Putin perches atop a corrupt, kleptocratic, ruthless, pyramid of power where he licenses who can acquire fabulous wealth. Thus his supporters are basically criminals whose overriding principle is greed.
They will only remain loyal to Putin for as long as he enables them to feed that greed and can protect them from the wrath of their fellow citizens. Putin knows that if he appears unable to do those things, some will be tempted to remove him in a palace coup that might normalize relations with the outside world and tamp down dangers of domestic political upheaval that could end their power and wealth.
Another difference from the previous times Russia has staged menacing military manoeuvres is that the Kremlin expended much effort on creating a narrative that Ukraine had somehow “declared war on Russia.”
That was accompanied by an upsurge in shelling and sniping from the Russian lines that resulted in a large number of Ukrainians dead and wounded. The Ukrainian military source believed the uptick in violence was intended to provoke a violent Ukrainian response that Moscow could use as a pretext to barrel into Ukraine.
Choking off the Kerch Strait
Two other factors are at play. One is that the Crimean Peninsula has few natural water sources of its own and relied on a 400-km canal channelling water from Ukraine’s largest river, the Dnieper, to provide up to 85% of its water needs. Ukraine cut off the pipeline water following the Russian invasion.
After winters without much snow, water shortages are becoming critical and Russia is believed to be considering an attack deep into Ukrainian territory to capture the pipeline. The second is the aim to damage Ukraine’s economy by choking off exports of steel and grain from its two main ports in the Sea of Azov.
To that end Moscow is using its navy to illegally control sea traffic between the Black and Azov Seas via a narrow channel called the Kerch Strait and attempting to forbid any foreign naval vessels from entering the Black Sea.
The Russian demands flout international maritime law and, unchallenged, would set a dangerous precedent for global sea traffic. Britain has said it will send two Royal Navy vessels into the Black Sea. Perhaps Putin is just playing psychological games with Ukraine and testing the West.
“Upper Volta with nuclear weapons”
What is troubling though is that Europe, the US and the collective “West” seems to be breathing a sigh of relief that Putin has been gracious enough not to invade Ukraine on this occasion.
The Soviet Union was, long ago, described as “Upper Volta with nuclear weapons.” Today’s Russia is a similarly economically backward, authoritarian country which, like oil-rich Middle Eastern states, offers little that the West needs or wants except oil and gas. However, it also possesses a huge nuclear arsenal.
Nobody wants a nuclear conflict and Ukraine has never asked for foreign soldiers to fight for her against Russia. But the mass demonstrations in Kyiv’s central “Maidan” or central square in 2014 became known as the “EuroMaidan” because the demonstrators said they wanted their country “to join Europe.”
By “joining Europe” they meant not only membership of the EU but to solidify in their country the ideals about rule-of-law, human rights, a life with dignity, that they believed were at the core of what constituted western values. Many who live in “the West” may label those demonstrators as naive. But the demonstrators believed those European, Western, values were worth risking their lives for.
Scores of EU flags were being held aloft as government security services’ snipers shot dead more than 100 unarmed protesters. Ukrainians have been fighting and dying since 2014 not only to defend their country but to prevent Putin smashing a “world order” where international relations are governed by laws and negotiations and supplanting it by one where military aggression and mass slaughter decide the future.
Ukraine is the only country whose people have spilled blood for the values and ideals that have traditionally been important to Western countries and underpinned the EU. So why has the EU not offered a clear path for membership to people so enthusiastic about Brussels’ purported principles and ideals that they have been willing to die for them?
What will US or the West really do?
Brussels has imposed various sanctions on Russia which have not altered Putin’s behaviour Overall Western sanctions have stopped short of crippling economic sanctions. Some western countries, chiefly the U.S. but also Britain and Canada, have provided invaluable training and equipment to the Ukrainian military.
America, so far, is the only country to have provided lethal, game-changing weapons – Javelin tank-destroying missiles, whose very presence stopped attacks by Russian armoured vehicles almost overnight.
Joe Biden, long a staunch supporter of Ukraine, reiterated the U.S. will support Ukraine by bolstering its ability to respond to Russian aggression. That is the point of this week’s visit by U.S. Secretary of State, Antony Blinken. In response to Putin’s regular bellicose verbal threats of violence against the West and actual acts of war against Ukraine, western powers and the EU have threatened Moscow with more sanctions.
Perhaps, in back-channel warnings, the West has unequivocally stated its intention to support Ukraine by all means. Maybe, behind the scenes, NATO made stern warnings to Moscow about the consequences of invading Ukraine. But all that seems doubtful.
In 2014 the West, including America, did not provide the weapons Ukraine needed to even up the odds against Russia’s vast war machine. However, cautions about “provoking Russia” and lame, formulaic, urgings about “peaceful negotiation” won the day and strengthened Putin’s conviction that only brute force matters.
Unless “the West” shows that it is willing to fight – or at least enables Ukraine to do so, including by “provocatively” supplying lethal weapons – to defend its interests, there is no obvious reason for Putin to change his behaviour.
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Askold Krushelnycky has reported extensively from conflict zones including Afghanistan and the Balkans and on the frontlines of the war between Ukraine and Russia which erupted in 2014 and has written a best-selling book about the Orange Revolution in Ukraine published by Random House.