Roger Annis’ article Can Kyiv sustain its war in eastern Ukraine? The view from Canada correctly criticizes the Ukrainian government for what appear (if this is confirmed) to be the careless use of unguided Grad rockets in populated areas that have (over a span of two weeks) apparently resulted in 16 civilian casualties in the Donetsk area.
In almost every other respect, however, the article is demonstrably erroneous, incomplete, or simply fails to draw the correct conclusions from the evidence. It’s useful both to examine some of the particular mistakes made by Annis (and other commentators), but also to focus on what the central evaluative criterion with respect to Ukraine should and must be — something that is completely absent in Annis’ (and other commentators) discussion of Ukrainian events.
Can Moscow sustain its war in eastern Ukraine? The view based on evidence and reason
In relation to the crash of Malaysia Airlines flight MH-17 Annis claims that:
“The Associated Press and other media outlets are reporting that U.S. government officials admit having “no evidence” linking Russia (or anyone else) to the plane crash.”
What the Associated Press report cited by Annis says, however is:
“White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said the U.S. was still working to determine whether the missile launch had a “direct link” to Russia, including whether there were Russians on the ground during the attack and the degree to which Russians may have trained the separatists to launch such a strike.”
There is ample evidence that MH-17 was shot down by an SA-11 surface-to-air missile fired by Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, “the intelligence officials said, citing intercepts, satellite photos and social media postings by separatists, some of which have been authenticated by U.S. experts.”
What there is no evidence of is a “direct link to Russia.” And indeed, from what we already know (which is a very great deal; see Fallen aircraft and smoking guns: The deadly consequences of Russian insurgency in Ukraine) there well may be no such “direct link”.
The credible and corroborated facts are: rebels themselves exhibited the BUK missile and an Associated Press reporter saw a BUK missile launcher near the town of Snizhne where the aircraft was shot down earlier in the day, in rebel-controlled territory. The intercepted cell phone communications between rebel commanders and their on-the-ground operatives conclusively document the sequence of events in which the insurgents themselves report that they have shot down an aircraft, and before it was clear it was a civilian plane that had been shot down, Igor Girkin/Igor Strelkov the commander of the so-called “Donetsk People’s Army” publicly boasted of the fact that the rebels had done so.
U.S. military satellite information has definitively shown that a BUK missile battery in this rebel-controlled site was the one that brought down the Malaysia Airlines aircraft. And the following day, the Ukrainian interior ministry filmed a BUK missile launching system (minus one of its SH-11 missiles) being smuggled back across the border into Russia.
Thus, the guilty parties admit to having the weaponry (corroborated by media) in the theatre, publicly boast of the shooting, privately discuss having done it, and there is independent information from military satellites, reporters, and intelligence sources of the entire sequence of events.
We may not know who was sitting behind the controls of the BUK missile launcher, or if there was a Russian military “advisor” attached to the unit watching over their shoulder, however, this doesn’t absolve the Kremlin from responsibility. Vladimir Putin has not only been fomenting this conflict, but also supplying and training the rebel insurgents.
Question: What could possibly go wrong if you give sophisticated high-tech weapons to a group of lunatics, fanatics, mercenaries, and criminals? Answer: Malaysia Airlines MH-17.
Malaysia Airlines MH-17: The crash site
Annis claims that:
“self-defense fighters in the area have cooperated fully with international investigators since the disaster happened.”
Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) investigators sent to the site of the Malaysia Airlines MH-17 crash were repeatedly threatened by rebel forces, prevented from examining more than a fraction of the wreckage, and limited in their time at the site. Rebels sometimes blocked access to the crash site and may have tampered with evidence.
In intercepted cell-phone communications, Alexander Khodakovsky leader of the rebel Vostok Battalion stated that the two black boxes from the aircraft had been removed by the rebels [in complete violation of investigation protocols] and were being held by the head of intelligence of the insurgency’s military commander. Khodakovsky was then heard to order the militiaman to ensure no outsiders, including the OSCE monitor team, get hold of any material. Khodakovsky said that he was seeking information about the black boxes under instructions from, “our high-placed friends…in Moscow.”
Only after intense international pressure did the rebels withdraw and stop their attempts to hinder the investigation.
Refugees in Russia and Ukraine
Annis claims that:
“More than 220,000 refugees have crossed the border into Russia’s Rostov region since Kyiv launched its war in April. Four hundred refugee camps there are stretched to the limit of their resources. The head of Russia’s migration service, Konstantin Romodanovsky, says more that 515,000 people have fled to Russia from southeast Ukraine since April 1.”
Let’s examine this claim more closely. An armed conflict has been waging for several months in the Donbas (the provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk) since, in the wake of the annexation of Crimea by Russia, Vladimir Putin embarked on a destabilization of the region with an influx of arms, mercenaries, criminals, and Russian agents to both train and augment local separatist militias. In such circumstances, civilians may understandably flee a conflict zone.
The United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) has said that 130,000 Ukrainians have left for Russia this year, although a significant portion of that number is likely to be due to work-related migration. Nearly 100,000 have moved from the conflict zone west to neighbouring areas of Ukraine. Other reporters on the ground in Russian areas adjacent to eastern Ukraine — in Bryansk, Kursk, Belgorod, Voronezh, and Rostov — have found scant evidence of any refugees being present. In southern Rostov a few hundred “guests” from Ukraine have arrived.
“Local border officials say in the first quarter of the year, 14,366 entered Russia and 13,226 left. Even they say, however, that the net gain is due to standard labor and education migration, not refugees. The oblast has not received a single application for temporary asylum or refugee status.”
In Bryansk, “border officials have generously made room for a possible wave of refugees, clearing out space in orphanages, retirement homes, and facilities for the physically disabled to make way for fellow Russians. Surprisingly, no one has applied.”
The figure of 220,000 refugees” cited by Annis, and circulated in a number of official Russian media, seems to be an uncorroborated, and perhaps politically motivated figure.
Numbers aside, such numerical fixation tells us nothing about the reasons why people might be leaving their homes, whether for annual work-related migration, education, or for fear of political instability. And in the latter case, of what circumstances and generated by whom?
• Could they have fled from places like Slovyansk, occupied for three months by the insurgents until they were driven from the city by the Ukrainian army? Where a bulldozer is now excavating a mass grave believed to contain the bodies of more than 20 people murdered by the militants while they occupied the city.
• Or might Ukrainian-speaking citizens of Slovyansk have felt nervous about living in city where the self-declared “mayor”, Vycheslav Ponomarev, declared a “hunt” for suspicious people, particularly Ukrainian-speakers? Could that have been a cause for concern for ethnic Ukrainians?
• Or might they have been concerned about living in a “People’s Republic” where Jews were notified that they faced “forceful expulsion and having their assets seized” if they didn’t register with authorities? Or where Roman Catholic and Ukrainian Catholic clergymen have been kidnapped, threatened, and beaten for religious pretexts. [N.B. the constitution of “Donetsk People’s Republic” only recognizes the Moscow patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church.]
• Or could they have been Roma people, whose women and children were beaten by rebels, had their homes looted, and possessions stolen? Rebel actions that the OSCE have called, “a disturbing and ongoing pattern of anti-Roma violence.” Might that have been a reason for fleeing?
• Or could they have been members of the LGBT community such as those attacked when rebels stormed a gay club in Donetsk shooting at both male and female visitors? Might LGBT citizens feel nervous about living in a “People’s Republic” whose armed militias engaged in such conduct?
• Or perhaps living in a “Republic” where the “Minister of Defense” of the so-called “Donetsk People’s Army” Igor Girkin/ Igor Strelkov has been linked to the murder of 3,000 Bosnian Muslim civilians in Visegrad in Bosnia where he served as a mercenary with the “First Cossacks Division” in 1992. Might it be worrisome to have government ministers of such calibre?
Might having such a “government” have been a source of concern for citizens, prompting them to leave? Clearly there are refugees who have fled the conflict zone. The salient question left unaddressed by Annis, is what are people fleeing from and who is responsible for the conflict? The examples above illustrate some of the reasons why people might not wish to live in the “People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk.”
Corruption and Kleptocracy
Annis writes, “Successive governments run by Ukraine’s post-Soviet noueaux riche billionaires see the country sitting at 144 of 177 countries on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index.”
However, what Annis fails to do is draw the clear conclusion from this fact. This is precisely the legacy of corruption, cronyism, and kickbacks that flourished under the rule of ex-Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych that the Euromaidan movement demanded an end to. And it succeeded in deposing the Yanukovych regime, and securing new presidential elections. That’s exactly the point!
Parenthetically it’s worth pointing out that Vladimir Putin’s Russia sits at 127 of 177 countries on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index whereas countries like Germany (12), Great Britain (14), and France (22) that are part of the European Union, with which Ukraine has just signed an association agreement, are much closer to the top in terms of transparency — a clear indication of the model that Ukrainian citizens and its government are interested in aspiring to.
The Russian financed and directed insurgency
Annis claims that:
“The political struggle in eastern Ukraine began in February as a movement demanding autonomy over economic, social and cultural policy. Because of the ferocity of Kyiv’s war, the popular sentiment has shifted to demanding outright independence.”
The conflict in the Donbas began, not as Annis would have one believe, but as a deliberate attempt by Vladimir Putin to destabilize eastern Ukraine in retaliation for the success of the Euromaidan movement in deposing the kleptocratic regime of Viktor Yanukovych, a strong supporter of Putin and of the Russian kleptocracy (see Blundering in Ukraine: Putin’s strategic debacle for an extensive discussion of the political motivations and purposes of Putin in fomenting this crisis). There is a real fear on the part of the Kremlin that the Euromaidan’s demands for an end to cronyism, corruption, and authoritarian governments, and an embrace of civil society, openness, and transparency could infect the Russian populace — a potentially dangerous threat for the autocratic Putin regime.
As for Annis’ claims of support for “outright independence” in the Donbas, these are clearly incorrect. As I point out in Blundering in Ukraine: Putin’s strategic debacle, even in eastern Ukraine (including the Donbas) support for independence is extremely meager:
“However, polling conducted by the International Republican Institute shows that even in the Donbas, this popularity [of Vladimir Putin] does not translate into support for Russian annexation or an independent state (such as the self-proclaimed Peoples Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk). In eastern Ukraine including the Donbas (where the largest concentration of Russian-speakers live), only 5 per cent of the population supports Russian annexation or an independent state. Forty per cent support the current Ukrainian state, and 35 per cent a unitary state with a federal structure giving greater autonomy for local regions (i.e., 75 per cent support a unified Ukraine; only 5 per cent support division). “
Missing the forest for the trees
What Annis misses is what the central evaluative determinant of events in Ukraine should and needs to be, namely what Ukrainian people desire in terms of their future and destiny. What are the aspirations for statehood of Ukrainian citizens?
Ukraine has just had presidential and mayoral elections. Ukrainians have spoken clearly and eloquently in terms of what sort of state and society they want, emphatically rejecting the kleptocratic, autocratic Russian model promulgated by Vladimir Putin. They do not want a country ruled by corruption, cronyism, and kickbacks and they have forcefully and repeatedly said so in large, majority numbers.
Ukrainians elected the democratic reformist Vitaly Klitschko of UDAR as mayor of Kyiv, and the “Chocolate King” Petro Poroshenko (with an absolute majority) as president of Ukraine. Poroshenko (who won in every electoral district in Ukraine where the election was conducted save one) has embraced the Euromaidan agenda from the start, a movement in which over one million Ukrainians participated in over 33 cities and towns across the country. Imagine what a resounding, populist demonstration of values this represents. This is a massive, democratic, grass-roots political expression that one would expect an avowed socialist would recognize and respect, indeed applaud.
The Ukrainian Euromaidan movement involves a desire for democracy, transparency, civil society, an end to corruption and the kleptocratic Yanukovych government, values of liberal democracy, and closer economic and cultural ties with the European Union. Since independence in 1991, Ukrainians have strongly supported closer ties with the EU. As noted above, Ukrainians overwhelmingly support a unitary Ukrainian state.
The conduct of other countries (Russia, the USA, the European Union, Canada, etc.) with respect to Ukraine needs to be evaluated on the basis of how they support those desires that have been articulated by the Ukrainian people.
If one bears this in mind, much chaff falls away.
Drinking the Kool-Aid: Intoxicated on delusion
In My Maidan Myrna Kostash writes:
“I see a pattern…that has been repeated as Canadian progressives have weighed in on the meaning of Euromaidan, winter 2013-2014. The same skepticism about the spontaneity of such courageous self-organization, the same implication of dark European- or U.S.-based conspiracies behind it, the same solicitude for Russian imperial interests, the same uncritical transmission of anti-Ukrainian propaganda, the same lack of solidarity with the desire and will of masses of people from all parts of Ukraine for a life of material, moral and spiritual dignity.”
It continues to be perplexing why some Canadians on the left have veered so far to the right in regard to the Ukrainian situation. How is it possible to miss the genuinely progressive, populist character of the Euromaidan movement? Over a million people rising up in defiance of a corrupt regime — and succeeding! Desiring an open, transparent, accountable, civil society — and embarking on that journey! The naked aggression of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. The heavy and incontrovertible hand of Russia in the destabilization of eastern Ukraine. The brute, thuggish, reactionary character of governments installed there. The criminals, mercenaries, and gangsters who lead these self-declared and unrecognized puppet governments. In the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, they cling to flimsy and fictitious straws.
Now that the vastly overblown concerns about the Ukrainian government being “fascist” (a word bandied about with carefree abandon) have been conclusively dispelled by the June elections [the right-wing nationalist party Svoboda (Freedom) received only 1.16 per cent of votes cast; the even more extreme Pravij Sektor (Right Sektor) garnered 0.70 per cent: see Blundering in Ukraine: Putin’s strategic debacle for more information] one would expect that the scales might at last fall from their eyes.
At the same time they appear to show no concern whatever for avowed Russian fascists like as Alexander Dugin, such a far-right extremist that he quit the neo-Nazi National Bolshevik party which he helped found (whose “intellectual oasis” is the Waffen-SS), to form the even more extreme National Bolshevik Front! And Dugin is not cast into the political wilderness in contemporary Russia — he serves as an advisor to Sergei Naryshkin, the speaker of the State Duma, the Russian Parliament. Or of the über-communist and neo-Stalinist Sergei Kurginyan with his paramilitary Kurginyan Army and Essence of Time movement, determined to create a USSR 2.0. The double standards and asymmetry of concern are astonishing.
[N.B. For some insightful and evocative images of both Russian extremists, and Russian progressives opposed to the authoritarian Putin regime, see the photographs shot by Russian photojournalist, Ilya Varlamov, in our collaborative article, Faces of war and peace on Moscow streets.]
I concluded my article Crisis in Ukraine: Disinformation and useful idiots by saying:
“There’s no pleasure or honour in being a stooge of American propaganda, however being duped by Russian propaganda is no better. Manipulation is manipulation, no matter who the manipulator is. Useful idiots are held in contempt and cynically exploited by their masters. They believe you can be fooled all of the time. Critical thinking, independent corroboration, fact checking, confirmation of sources, trusted and reliable sources, determining plausibility, thorough background information, first-hand experience, evidence-based reasoning … all are techniques to fight back. Fight back.”
I reiterate those words in response to Myrna Kostash’s call for, “solidarity with the desire and will of masses of people from all parts of Ukraine for a life of material, moral and spiritual dignity.”
This is Part VI of a series on the political situation of Ukraine. Part V is Blundering in Ukraine: Putin’s strategic debacle. Part VII is Russians in revolt: Annexing Crimea but losing your soul.
Christopher Majka is an ecologist, environmentalist, policy analyst, and writer. He has a Russian Studies degree from Dalhousie University and the Pushkin Institute in Moscow. He is the director of Natural History Resources and Democracy: Vox Populi.