Submitted by George Callaghan…
After four and a half years of conflict Ukraine appears to be stumbling towards peace. The fighting has claimed 14 000 lives and several times that number have been injured. Some of the injured are disabled for life.
The current ceasefire appears to be holding. There have been so many false dawns. Since 2014 there have been several ceasefires. Most of them have been more honoured in the breach than in the observance. As W B Yeats wrote ‘peace comes dropping slow’. The Paris Peace Talks are due to commence imminently. The Russian and Ukrainian delegation shall have their parley there. The French and Germans will weigh in on the Ukrainian side. President Macron of France stated that NATO ought to consider terrorism its foe and not Russia. France, Germany, the United States and other NATO members have acted as the armourers and treasurers of the Ukrainians.
There have been a number of confidence building measures towards the current ceasefire. POWS have been exchanged. Three Ukrainian naval vessels distrained by Russia in 2018 have been returned. At Stanitsya Luhansk a bridge has opened across the frontline. Civilians are able to pass back and forth. This is a lifeline for Ukrainian pensioners in the Luhansk People’s Republic. These people can only claim their Ukrainian state pension by claiming to reside in land that is controlled by the Ukrainian Government so they have to show up in person once in a while.
The Ukrainian Conflict is an internal one. However, the Russian Government has repeatedly stated that there are Russians in Ukraine fighting on the side of the rebels. Moscow claims that it has never dispatched a single soldier across the border. Some men have gone voluntarily. Russia affirms that it is not a party to the conflict. Why is it a party to the peace talks?
It is worth reminding ourselves why this conflict started? We could go back 1000 years. The cradle of Russia is now Moscow it is Ukraine. Indeed, the embryonic Russian State was Kievan Rus. Prince Volodymyr, or if you prefer, Prince Vladimir, received missionaries from four faiths. He rejected Islam, Judaism and Catholicism due to their burdensome observance. He plumped for Orthodox Christianity. It was a fateful choice. Orthodoxy became crucial to Russian identity and meant that Russia felt a connection to certain other Orthodox nations. Ukraine is also an Orthodox country and in the recent conflict the Ukrainian Orthodox Church ended its full communion with the Russian Orthodox Church.
In time Moscow became the capital of Russia. Like other countries with a very long history the capital city has shifted several times. Kiev became less important to Russia.
The Russians often fought the Poles. For a few centuries the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was puissant. This mighty state ruled land from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea. This included most of what is now Ukraine. The Poles even briefly occupied Moscow in the early 17th century. The Ukrainians had been speaking Russian. In the 17th century they started to adopt Polish loanwords. The Ukrainians diverged from the Poles. Russians tended to view Ukraine as being at the edge of their own territory which is why its name means ‘at the edge’ in Russian. In reflection of this in Russian one says ‘on Ukraine’ and not ‘in Ukraine’.
In the late 18th century Poland was defeated by various foes. The partitions of Poland commenced. Ukraine became part of the Russian Empire once again. The very western segment of Ukraine was part of the Austrian Empire. The Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire wanted the Ukrainians to be Catholics. So they formally became Roman Catholics but retained their Orthodox liturgy. This was acceptable to the Holy Roman Empire. Such people are called ‘Ukrainian Catholics’ or ‘Uniate.’
Many Russians moved into Ukraine. It became very unclear who was Russian and who was Ukrainian. Many people were of mixed ethnicity. Some Russians viewed the Ukrainians as a subsection of the Russian nation. There were other people there – Jewish people, Gypsies, Cossacks, Greeks and suchlike.
In the 19th century the Industrial Revolution began to take hold in the Russian Empire. Some Ukrainian cities became vital industrial centres. Ukraine did not exist in the empire as such. What we now call Ukraine was comprised of several provinces of the tsarist empire.
Turmoil followed the October Revolution in 1917. Ukraine declared independence. Vladimir Ilyich Lenin initially gave his blessing to non-Russian nationalities who wished to secede from the Russian State. After a couple of years he came over to Russian nationalism. When he did so he did so with a vengeance. The Red Army put paid to Ukrainian independence. Not all Ukrainians had wanted independence. There were various reasons for wanting unity with the remnants of the tsarist empire. Ukrainian communists wanted to be part of the USSR because they believed it offered the best chance of building the socialist workers’ paradise.
In the 1930s Ukraine suffered a horrific famine like much of the USSR. Many Ukrainians try to lay this at the door of Russia. This is not quite fair. The Soviet Government was in charge. There were people of all ethnicities in the government and that included Ukrainians, Russians, Georgians and others.
During the 1930s the Ukrainian language was seriously downgraded in education. But this does not necessarily mean that the Soviet State was discriminating against Ukrainians per se. Brezhnev was the First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and he was Ukrainian. Constantine Cherenenko was half-Ukrainian.
In 1941 the Third Reich invaded Ukraine. Some Ukrainian extreme nationalists co-operated with the Wehrmacht. One of their leaders was Stepan Bandera who became notorious for participating in anti-Semitic atrocities. Ukrainian ultra-nationalists also slaughtered Poles. Most Ukrainians did not take part in such crimes. There were Ukrainians who fought gallantly for the Red Army. There were others who simply strove to survive in a dystopian situation. A few Ukrainian nationalists fought against both the Wehrmacht and the Red Arm. Some of these guerrillas went on struggling into the 1950s.
Russians and pro-Russian elements in Ukraine sometimes call pro-Western Ukrainians by the pejorative name of ‘Banderista’. It is not accurate to suggest that any Ukrainian who does not wish his country to be an ally of Russia is a fascist.
The Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. Ukraine became an independent country. The Commonwealth of Independent States was found. At first Ukraine worked in close concert with Russia. Everyone in Ukraine spoke Russian even if not perfectly in each case. Many Ukrainians could not speak the Ukrainian language. This included people of the Ukrainian ethnicity in some cases. In the eastern regions of the country most people spoke Russian as their home language. Many of them were of the Russian ethnicity. The further west one goes the more Ukrainian speaking people are the more people tend to have a distinctly Ukrainian identity.
Russia was assured at the dissolution of the USSR that NATO ‘would not move one inch to the east’. Russia was so helpful on various issues such as the reunification of Germany. Moscow had the right to veto that permanently. As NATO established bases on Russia’s border this seemed very menacing to Russia. If Russia formed an alliance with Canada, Mexico and the Bahamas and stationed troops on America’s frontier you can imagine the screeds this would provoke in Washington DC. When the USSR formed a cordial relationship with Cuba remember what the United States tried to do.
Many people blame the breakup of the USSR for ruining lives. A Russian born in Georgia told me ‘We woke up in different countries.’ She was born in the 70s. First and foremost, she was a Soviet. She was Russian second. Georgia split from Russia. All of a sudden, she found she could not speak the official language of the country she had lived in all her life. Her cousins in Russia and Ukraine were suddenly foreigners. Ukraine experienced the same travails as Russia in the 90s only worse. Ukraine established a new currency – the gryvnia. Soon it was in freefall. Ukrainian factories sometimes found it a nightmare to get their raw materials because overnight these had to cross international frontiers which had not existed previously. Further, markets for Ukrainian goods were suddenly in foreign countries. The breakup of the USSR was cataclysmic for many people but also had some positive consequences.
Ukraine was very dependent on Russia for many things particularly oil and gas. The relationship with Ukraine was also important for Russia despite having four times the population. Ukrainian troops served alongside the Russian confreres when the CIS intervened to assist the Tajik Government in the Tajik Civil War in the 1990s.
From 1991 Ukraine began to assert its identity. The Ukrainian language was promoted. People reassessed history. A few even came to have a positive view of fascism. Opinion in Ukraine became increasingly bifurcated. Very roughly speaking the west looked west and the east looked east. Some in Ukraine wished to join the EU and NATO. Others were horrified by these suggestions. Instead they wished to retain Russian as the co-official language, to remain enmeshed with Russia or even to fully reunite with Russia. This debate about a pro-Russian or a pro-NATO policy rives Georgia, Moldova and some other erstwhile Soviet republics. Georgia and Ukraine have candidate NATO member status.
Ukraine saw other former Soviet nations become part of NATO and the EU. These are Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. Some Ukrainians were covetous of this. The Ukrainian Government decided to prove it had something to offer NATO. Therefore, Kiev send troops to Afghanistan and Iraq to assist NATO countries there. Russia can hardly complain in the case of the former since it zealously supported the NATO mission in Afghanistan. Russia approved of Central Asian countries temporarily hosting US bases and Russia Army officer met with NATO officers to offer them the benefit of their wisdom derived from 10 years of bitter campaigning in Afghanistan.
Ukraine was dependent on Russian oil and gas. This was provided at a subsidized price. Some in Russia felt that Ukraine was insufficiently grateful for such largesse.
In 2014 Yanukovich was President of Ukraine. He was one of the most pro-Russian politicians in the country. There were large scales demonstrations and even riots. Yanukovich fled to Russia where he remains to this day. Petro Poroshenko became president. Some disputed his legitimacy.
Many people in the easternmost regions of Ukraine felt threatened by Poroshenko. They considered his policies to be chauvinistic. An insurrection erupted in these regions bordering Russia.
Under Poroshenko Ukraine spoke of joining NATO. Russia felt menaced by this. Russians feared that NATO would establish bases on Crimea. By a curious irony it was the issue of bases on Crimea that caused the Crimean War of 1853-56.
Crimea had been Russian since the defeat of the Tatars. Most people there spoke Russian as their mother tongue. These people were Russian by blood and sympathy. The Russian Black Sea Fleet was stationed there. Russian soldiers moved in there in 2014 and met little resistance. They were hailed as liberators by the great majority of the people of the Peninsula. A plebiscite was organized to determine the future of the peninsula. Many outsiders complained that this was not held fairly or legally. Even if these accusations are true few dispute that most people in Crimea wish to be part of the Russian Federation.
Donbass and Luhansk fell out of Ukrainian governmental control in 2014. These are among the poorest regions in Ukraine. Russia subsidises these regions. This is a financial strain. Sanctions on Russia have damaged the Russian economy.
The Donbass People’s Republic (DPR) has been established as has the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). These polities use the Russian Ruble as their currency and they use the Russian language exclusively. They have issued their own licence plates. These licence plates are accepted by the Russian Police. Various sovereign states have recognized the independence of DPR and LPR. There are other lands in the former Soviet space in a similar situation such as Transnistria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Who is fighting for DPR and LPR? There are Ukrainian citizens who are fighting there. These people usually do not regard themselves as Ukrainian. They would like their people’s republics to be independent or to join Russia. There are Russian citizens fighting there as the Russian Government has consistently acknowledge. Moscow states that is has never dispatched anyone there. However, the Russian authorities have not lifted a finger to prevent people going. Russian will say that when a Russian goes to Luhansk and Donbass to fight for these territories he is like an internationalist fighting fascism in 1930s Spain or in 1980s Nicaragua. They would liken such volunteers to gallant and unselfish youths who went to battle against ISIS in Syria or Iraq. The rhetoric is sententious. Even Zelensky’s worst enemy would not pretend that he is on a moral continuum with ISIS.
The Russians who have volunteered to fight for LPR and DPR are veterans of the Russian Army. Russia had compulsory military service until recently.
There are people from other Slavonic nations who have stepped forward to fight for the LPR and DPR. These people come from Serbia in particular. Pan-Slavism never gained traction in most Slavic countries. Serbia would be an exception. Serbs remember the unstinting support offered by Mother Russia during Serbia’s travails in the 1990s. Many Serbs believe it would be a betrayal to do anything less than backing Russia to the hilt. By contrast Ukraine has been rather less successful in enlisting foreign volunteers.
The DPR and LPR forces are fighting using weapons left over from the Soviet era. In five and a half years have they not had to have ammunition resupplied? I wonder where they get that from. Are none of their weapons of post 1991 manufacture?
Who is fighting against DPR and LPR? It is the Ukrainian Army mostly. There are also various militias which exist with the imprimatur of the Ukrainian State. Some of these militias have an ultra-nationalist outlook. Much has been made of Pravy Sector. However, the fascist parties in Ukraine attract only around 2% of the vote.
There have been many parleys between Russia and Ukraine over the conflict. Belarus has sometimes acted as an honest broker. Belarus is usually slavishly loyal to Moscow. But the Ukraine conflict looks ominous from Minsk’s perspective. In Lithuania the Russian minority is 25% of the population. The status of their language has been infringed. Moscow mutters darkly that its diaspora is being mistreated and this cannot be allowed to stand.
The election of Volodymyr Zelensky appeared to signify a more dovish mood in Ukraine. Poroshenko’s attitude to LRP and DPR was straightforward hostility. President Zelensky occasionally spoke Russian in public whereas Poroshenko refused to do so since the conflict commenced. Zelensky appeared to have a more conciliatory approach. Zelensky said he would not rest until every millimeter of the national territory was reintegrated. That is decidedly quixotic. How on earth is he going to recover Crimea? Ukraine still claims the peninsula. Russia has proclaimed Crimea to be part of Russia proper. Moscow has not claimed that the DPR and LPR are Russian territory. The Ukrainian Army has vigorously contested Donbass and Luhansk but has not dared to attack Russian Army formations in the Crimea.
At some level some Russians do not accept the independence of most former Soviet republics. With regard to the Baltic republics one Russian officials said that their independence ‘might be illegal and needs to be reviewed.’
Could it be that the border has been drawn in the wrong place? If Crimea, Luhansk and Donbass were allotted to Russia the conflict would probably cease. Myriad borders have changed before often by armed conflict. One more such frontier revision is not going to cause the sky to fall. A repartition of the land by negotiation is preferable.
This article shall not be a blow by blow account of the conflict. There have been numberless tragedies in this internecine conflict. Both sides have been accused of deliberately shelling civilian areas. What is a civilian area? That is difficult to define when there are soldiers around. If a building has 100 civilians and 1 soldier is it a civilian building? What if it has 100 civilians and 10 soldiers? Or 100 civilians and 50 soldiers? Or 100 soldiers and 100 civilians? Or 50 civilians and 100 soldiers? At what point is it ethically permissible to shell it? Of course one rarely knows how many soldiers and how many civilians there are in a location. The numbers are always changing. The combatants did not always wear uniforms. This reduces the risk for combatants but raises it for civilians. A friend of mine named Tatyana is from eastern Ukraine. Despite being ethnically Ukrainian she cannot speak Ukrainian. When fighting erupted she decided to flee to Kiev. She phoned a hotel to book a room. On hearing she came from the east the hotel receptionist told her, ‘I hope you fucking die!’
There is the hotly disputed Malaysia Airlines Incident. The flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was shot down over Ukraine. Claim has been met with counterclaim. No one has got to the bottom of it. Both sides blame the other for it. Even if it was the pro-Moscow rebels who shot down the airplane they would not have done so purposively. There was no gain from them in shooting down a civilian airliner of a neutral country. What possible desire would they have to do so? It would not be in furtherance of the insurgents’ cause. It could only redound to their disadvantage. It could not fail to be used against them by Kiev.
Both sides want to draw the conflict to a close. There has been a heavy cost. War weariness has set in. It does not appear that a breakthrough is likely.
NATO countries may grow tired of bankrolling Ukraine. Ukraine is not a NATO member. Why should NATO fund, arm and train the Ukrainians? NATO was founded as an anti-Soviet alliance. 70 years on the USSR is one with Nineveh and Tyre. Russia is the principal successor state of the USSR and tries to keep some of that legacy. NATO is to some degree and anti-Russian alliance. Perhaps NATO perceives Ukraine as a mercenary. It is a proxy war against Russia.
President Macron of France spoke for many when he said that NATO should be fighting terrorism and not Russia. Ukraine is a faraway country of which we know little. Why should NATO get into a conflict over Luhansk? It is a place few NATO citizens can even spell. How is this a vital national security interest of the United States, Norway, Luxembourg or any other NATO member state? The NATO alliance is in danger of fracturing. The fissure may come over NATO’s militant attitude towards Russia. There has been a thaw in Turko-Russian relations over the past few years.
Why should western countries risk a Third World War over Ukraine? I do not care what happens to Donbass and Luhansk. I have never been to these places nor am I ever likely to go. Not many would doubt that most people in those regions do not wish to belong to Ukraine. Who am I to disagree? You might say that Ukraine ought to be assisted to uphold the international order? This is a bit rich coming from NATO countries such as the United States. Look at the illegal occupation of Palestine which the US actively assists.
Thank goodness that NATO has not allowed Ukraine to join. Otherwise Ukraine would have said there is casus foederis. A world war does not bear thinking about. The same goes for Georgia which aspires to become a NATO country.
The Minsk Agreement provides for the forces on both sides to pullback. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe has confirmed that the protagonists have abided by the provisions of the said agreement. Prisoners of War have been exchanged. Ukrainian naval vessels seized in 2018 have been returned. These confidence building measures have indicated that both sides are serious about peace.
There have been green shoots of peace. But it is too early to sure that peace is here to stay. It could all be a huge ruse.
Nord Stream 2 will soon be online. This gas pipeline means that Russian gas does not have to transit Ukraine to get to the EU. This weakens Ukraine’s hand. Ukraine is sourcing its energy from elsewhere.
What might make the bare bones of long-term peace? What if Ukraine vowed never to join NATO? What is Donbass and Luhansk were granted greater autonomy? Perhaps they should be allowed to join Russia? The same could go for Crimea. The Russian language could be restored to its former status in Ukraine. Ukraine could agree not to allow any foreign troops to be stationed on its soil. All this might be too favourable to Russia. There are other proposals which would be more beneficial to Ukraine like regaining some of its lost land. Russia could resume selling cut price energy to Ukraine.
The peace agreement is supposed to be along the lines of the Steinmeier Formula. Frank-Walter Steinmeier the German foreign minister lent his name to this. As Germany weighs in on the side of Ukrainian nationalism this has led some to say this conflict is a replay of the Second World War. In Russian calendars Angela Merkel was depicted wearing a Wehrmacht uniform. This is a gross caricature. Petro Poroshenko was shown the uniform of a pro-Nazi Ukrainian unit of the 1940s. This is a slur on Poroshenko. He served in the Soviet Army. Thief he may be but Nazi he is not.
As with so many peace agreements the devil is in the detail. The withdrawal of combatants from the front line of the combat zone is a welcome development. Ukraine said it would recognize people’s militias in LPR and DPR. The armed groups there who regard themselves as properly constituted armies will say that they are these people’s militias. Ukraine is supposed to regain control of its frontier with Russia. Then elections are to be held in the disputed regions. Luhansk and Donbass were excluded from the Ukrainian Presidential elections and parliamentary elections since Kiev’s writ no longer ran in these localities.
It is hard to see all the term being honoured. As it is Zelensky is castigated as a traitor and a weakling by obdurate nationalists. People say he is selling out the disputed regions.
Donbass and Luhansk are the most pro-Russian areas of Ukraine. If they had been able to vote along with the pro-Russian caucus in the rest of the country it would have been possible to elect a president whom Moscow likes. This has happened a few times since 1991. In a sense the loss of Donbass and Luhansk has diminished Russian’s sway in Ukraine. Russia is said to be willing to get the militias to return Luhansk and Donbass to Ukrainian rule so long as the world recognizing Crimea as Russian sovereign territory.
There is still ample fighting spirit on both sides. It would be altogether premature to say that the conflict is over.
There are many paths to peace. Any of them is better than war.