Petrified in Ukraine
For the Herald
Conflict reeks of foreign-meddling but do powers still control the forces that have been set into motion?
THE HAGUE — As if on cue, a soccer game came to stir up the juices on the Petri dish of eastern Ukraine. Chernomorets and Metalist Kharkiv were fighting for a place in the Champions League at their fixture in Odessa last Friday. Their supporters, on the other hand, were fighting pro-Russian agitators in running street battles and under fusillades of petrol bombs. A total of 42 were killed, most of them in a blaze that consumed a trade union building. “The two teams are needing points,” read the preview of the match on one sports gambling website.
Ukraine’s military campaign to restore control over the restive east of the country, which began close to a fortnight ago and rumbles on presently though opaque gunfights and stand-offs across cities such as Slavyansk and Kramatorsk, has done what might be expected of it: scattered the seeds of conflict far and wide. Seaside Odessa had not even been on the frontline in these skirmishes, though little does that matter now it has become ground zero for pro-Russian martyrdom. “Odessa was always quite calm. Nobody expected this,” said one local witness in an interview with the BBC.
The risks of a conflagration spreading from Crimea and the militia barricades of eastern Ukraine to other border areas, where Russians speakers live in divided nations outside the rim of the homeland, can no longer be easily dismissed. Early reports, for instance, indicated that some of the pro-Russian agitators in Odessa may have travelled from Transnistria, a breakaway province in nearby Moldova that bows to Moscow. The alarming prospect of a cascade of bleeding incisions in the post-Soviet cartography is made all the more visually arresting by the sight of armed personnel carriers advancing along pastoral springtime highways. Reminiscences are of those sunny days of June over 20 years ago, when Slovenia and Croatia began the secessions that ignited a decade-long war in the Balkans.
Those early years of Balkan war, however, were met with general deafness in the international community. UN peacekeeping was in its infancy; its failures to protect the besieged Bosnians are notorious. Russia was desperately weak amid the crumbling of Communism. Neither Europe nor the United States, glowing in the aftermath of the Cold War, felt any pressing urge to intervene in lands well known for mothering the Great War.
So the peoples of the Balkans were invited to smoulder and putrefy for four long years of Western inaction and Russian fatigue — the time it took for NATO to unfurl its first airstrikes. But the same neglect is not to be expected in the eastern borderlands. From the very start of this crisis, when the revolution in Ukraine ousted the pro-Russian President Yanukovich, events have been over-determined rather than under-watched.
The uprising on Kiev’s Maidan square was indivisible from a public desire to turn against Russian authoritarianism and close ranks with the European Union. Crimea’s referendum and the rebel manoeuvres in Ukraine, meanwhile, appear inseparable from the thrust and bluff of Vladimir Putin’s martial artistry, though of a rather subtler variety that the comprehensive flattening of Grozny with which he made his name. Russian special forces, or Spetsnaz, are said by military experts from the Royal United Services Institute in London to be on the ground in eastern Ukraine, with troops from the Ryazan Airborne Academy supposedly coordinating separatists and Russian troops massed on the other side of the border. To cap it all, powerful propaganda machines on both sides of the Ukrainian fissure, running the gamut from local radios to global cable news networks via legions of twitter-happy loyalists, stoke the fires of odium. Options are getting narrow, so take your pick: terrorist or fascist?
In short, this budding conflict already reeks of foreign meddling and one-upmanship on the geopolitical masterboard, and has from the very moment Yanukovich chose Russian over EU integration. What is rather less well known, but of critical importance in the wake of the Odessa killings, are answers to two further questions. Do the powers guiding or seeking to guide the animal spirits of combat still control what has been stirred into motion? And do they have an end-point which they would like to reach that may be open to negotiation?
The coming weeks are likely to reveal whether the violence remains within the permitted dosage of mayhem preferred by Vladimir Putin or Ukrainian nationalists, or whether it spills over into a domain best evoked by Nietzsche: “without cruelty, there is no festival.” A crucial indicator of whether the managed disorder has been bungled into the sloppiness of civil war is whether an estimated five million reserve Kalashnikov rifles and other weapons are leaked into the hand of pro-Ukrainian fighters, or how deeply the Russian soldiers engage in defence of the rebel cause. The incidents in Odessa suggest it may not take too much more to bring about a full-scale Russian invasion, with consequences difficult to foretell.
It is not hard to expect that the more conservative wing of the Kremlin will all the while be whispering caution into Putin’s ear, advising him that a germ culture of militia destabilization is fine so long as it achieves its targets. One such goal that is clearly to the Kremlin’s liking would be to cancel the elections in the Ukraine due on May 25, and thereafter, with a nod from the United States and the EU (above all Germany), haggle toward a special status for the eastern Ukraine that recognizes Russia’s interests in the area, repeals sanctions on Moscow, and affirms the sanctity of other border demarcations.
Yet it is a winding and troublesome road to anything like that conclusion. Little is known as to moving scale of Putin’s ambitions or the intentions of Ukraine’s radicals, and nothing is predictable now that the provocateurs have been unleashed and point-scoring is under way.