Above photo: U.S. Vice President Joe Biden walks past the barricades on Mykhailivska Square in Kiev, Ukraine, on April 22, 2014 Sergei Chuzavkov—AP
Pretty much everything about Ukraine is murky and unreliable these days, and that’s before you take into consideration any of the meddling by outside powers playing carelessly with their Slavic pawns. Viewed in their darkest light, the events of the past 20 months (and the past 20 years) reflect an East-West death spiral that is now accelerating, and from which none of the engaged parties show any desire to disengage.
The civil war in eastern Ukraine has continued fitfully since September, when the parties signed a ceasefire known as the Minsk Agreement. The ceasefire has often been more honored in the breach than the observance, but overall it has led to considerably less bloodshed, especially among civilians, than the previous six months’ fighting. In the spring of 2014, the level of killing escalated sharply, at U.S. urging, when the newly-installed coup government in Kiev chose to attack rather than negotiate with the self-proclaimed People’s Republic of Donetsk and People’s Republic of Luhansk (now joined in the self-proclaimed federal state of Novorossiya). So far, only the Republic of South Ossetia has recognized these Ukrainian “republics” as independent countries. Only Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Nauru recognize South Ossetia, which declared its independence from Georgia in 1990, but secured it only in 2008 with the help of Russian intervention.
By comparison, the much smaller Republic of Kosovo, which declared its independence from Serbia in 2008, quickly secured that independence thanks to American and NATO military intervention, illustrating the double standard applied by the international community to questions of “territorial integrity” and “sovereignty.” Landlocked Kosovo, population about 1.8 million, is now by108 UN member countries, including the U.S., Canada, most of Europe, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, and Yemen.
During the summer of 2014, the Ukrainian military captured much of the territory of the Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk and other separatist-held areas, but at significant cost to the civilian population. An estimated 2.8 million ethnic Russians have emigrated from Ukraine to Russia during the past year. The Ukrainian army’s advance was halted by Russian military support to the Republics that Russia denies it provided, just as the U.S. and other NATO countries deny the support they have given Ukraine. The two Republics now hold about 3 million people and have access to the Black Sea along the southern border.
Does anyone really want a settlement in Ukraine?
In advance of the then-pending high level international meeting in Kazakhstan, each side was claiming the other had increasingly violated the ceasefire with small-arms fire, mortar shelling, and rocket attacks in recent days. An unnamed AP reporter has reported seeing Ukrainian rockets fired at separatist positions. Now that Ukraine and the outside powers have scrapped the peace talks, the Ukraine government has claimed that a separatist rocket killed ten civilians in a bus at the Donetsk airport, a key battlefield for months now. Unconfirmed, this report is somewhat credulously reported by Reuters and The New York Times, among others, while the Los Angeles Times awaited independent verification.(This is one of the memes of the Ukraine conflict, a war crimethat each side blames on the other while people in the outside world believe the truth is what supports their political bias: another version of the same story played similarly in October.)
Ukraine initiated the January 15 peace talks only to have Ukraine effectively scuttle the opportunity. The self-contradictory sequence of events seems to have gone something like this: Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko, the billionaire chocolate oligarch, announced in late December that he’d be meeting in the Kazakh capital of Astana on January 15 with French president Francois Hollande and Russian president Vladimir Putin as well as German chancellor Angela Merkel. As of January 10, these countries had yet to confirm such a meeting. Meanwhile, Merkel met with Ukrainian prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, America’s guy-in-Ukraine, and then threw doubt on whether the January 15 meeting would happen at all, or whether there would be any other meeting to continue working toward keeping Ukraine from collapsing into a failed state.
In other words: when Ukraine’s president announces a peace talks, Ukraine’s prime minister meets with a key player and the peace talks get called off. Who’s in charge here? According to the Ukrainian constitution, both have governing authority – sort of. There is no constitutional mechanism for resolving tension between these offices when the office holders choose to butt heads (as happened earlier with President Viktor Yushenko, a central banker whose policies enraged Communists and oligarchs alike, and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, an enraged natural gas oligarch). This structural dysfunction built into the Ukrainian constitution is one reason Ukraine has been unable to govern itself effectively for more than a decade, during which it has become a world-class kleptocracy.
Why does Merkel set conditions she knows are impossible?
In establishing her “reasons” for blocking peace talks, German chancellor Merkel created a cover story that sounded vaguely credible, but made no sense to anyone who understood that the terms she called for were, at best, years away from being achieved, if they were achievable at all. As the Times reported it: “Merkel made clear that the entire Minsk agreement needs to be fulfilled before European Union sanctions against Russia can be lifted.” The American choice for Ukrainian leadership, Yatsenyuk echoed Merkel’s word cloud, but added his own obviously self-serving priority: sealing the border between the Republics and Russia.
The Minsk agreement reflects a peace proposal first put forward by Ukrainian president Poroshenko in June 2014. There are only four material signatories to the Minsk agreement: Ukraine, Russia, and the Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk. The agreement was reached under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the only other signatory. One unstated presumption of the agreement is that the Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk will be re-integrated into Ukraine with all their rights intact. The Minsk agreement comprises 12 unprioritized points, each of which is an aspirational goal for both sides, even though some elements can be achieved only by one side or another:
- Bilateral ceasefire
- OSCE monitoring of ceasefire
- Decentralization of power under law to be passed by Ukraine
- Permanent OSCE monitoring of Ukraine-Russia border
- Release of all hostages
- Amnesty for separatists, Ukraine to pass law
- Continue inclusive national dialogue
- Improve humanitarian condition of Donbass
- Local elections consistent with Ukraine law
- All sides withdraw illegal and mercenary military forces
- Adoption of Donbass recovery and reconstruction program
- Protect all participants in consultations
In effect, the Minsk agreement is a somewhat messy 12-step program designed to help those people who, along with their friends and relatives, remain addicted to uncontrolled outbursts of internecine violence. Call it “Ukraine-anon.” Like any 12-step program, the participants typically need the support of those close to them if they are to succeed in improving their lives. When someone like Angela Merkel, who is outside the formal process, colludes with someone supposedly within the process to undermine the process, the process will likely be sabotaged. That appears to be what happened, at least for the short run.
Given the sketchy quality of the Minsk agreement, using it as a standard for international behavior is irrational, or deliberately dishonest and hostile. The agreement calls, for example, for early local elections, which the Republics held, after the elections in the rest of the Ukraine in the fall of 2014. The Republics’ elections were widely denounced in the West as a violation of the Minsk agreement, even though Ukraine had failed to pass the law under which they were supposed to be held.
Until the West stops assaulting Russia, calls for peace are a bad joke
Merkel’s position, reflecting that of Prime Minister Yatsenyuk and his American sponsors, is deceitful and destructive. To suspend the peace process until the Minsk agreement can be fully realized is to knowingly prolong hostilities for an uncertain number of years. To make EU sanctions on Russia dependent on fully implementing the Minsk agreement is to give Ukraine a veto on the EU. The agreement cannot be fully implemented until Ukraine adopts the appropriate laws, and there’s little to persuade Ukraine to do that other than its own motives. If Ukraine fails to pass the promised laws, Merkel would have the EU continue to punish Russia, which seems to be what the game has been about for over 20 years already.
Russia and Ukraine appear to be at a tipping point, and conceivably the delicate balance in those and other affected countries could last for a long time. Or others, including the United Nations, could act to help stabilize the region and to ameliorate the economic and human rights damage that threatens to continue unchecked. More likely, the U.S. and Europe will continue their policies of deliberate destabilization until the day when it all implodes and Washington will point a finger and say: “See what Russia’s done now?!”
There are many straws blowing in that wind, and for now it looks like an ill wind blowing no good. A sampling of those straws:
* The Ukraine Freedom Support Act of 2014 passed both houses of Congress unanimously, without debate and without a recorded vote. The president signed it into law on December 18th. The 17-page bill is a model of cold-war-style duplicity cloaking a virtual declaration of global war in the rhetoric of high principle, imaginary threats, and sloppy grammar:
It is the policy of the United States to further assist the Government of Ukraine in restoring its sovereignty and territorial integrity to deter the Government of the Russian Federation from further destabilizing and invading Ukraine and other independent countries in Central and Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia.
Among other things, the bill authorizes the president to impose seven pages of further sanctions on Russia, interfere in Russian democracy and civil society, expand American propaganda broadcasting in the region, expand non-military support to Ukraine and to initiate $350 million in military aid to Ukraine over the next three years. The bill’s last section says it is not to be “construed as an authorization for the use of military force.”
When President Obama signed the bill into law, the White House issued a statement having the president say, in part, with all due sanctimony and duplicity:
My Administration will continue to work closely with allies and partners in Europe and internationally to respond to developments in Ukraine and will continue to review and calibrate our sanctions to respond to Russia’s actions. We again call on Russia to end its occupation and attempted annexation of Crimea, cease support to separatists in eastern Ukraine, and implement the obligations it signed up to under the Minsk agreements.
* Ukraine is an impoverished country approaching economic collapse. The new Ukrainian finance minister, Natalie Jaresko, is an American citizen who managed a Ukrainian-based, U.S.-created hedge fund that was charged with illegal insider trading. She also managed a CIA fund that supported “pro-democracy” movements and laundered much of the $5 billion the U.S. spent supporting the Maidan protests that led to the Kiev coup in February 2014. Jaresko is a big fan of austerity for people in troubled economies.
* Writing in the New York Review of books for January 7, billionaire George Soros sees Europe and the United States dithering toward failure not just for Ukraine, but for Europe. Soros doesn’t challenge the official view of “Russian aggression” or “attempts to destabilize Ukraine” and the rest of that propaganda line that underpins sanctions. Challenging conventional wisdom, Soros focuses instead on the current, inherent, unaddressed, and enduring instability from maintaining a kleptocratic state:
… the old Ukraine is far from dead. It dominates the civil service and the judiciary, and remains very present in the private (oligarchic and kleptocratic) sectors of the economy. Why should state employees work for practically no salary unless they can use their position as a license to extort bribes? And how can a business sector that was nurtured on corruption and kickbacks function without its sweeteners? These retrograde elements are locked in battle with the reformists.
Essentially, Soros argues that reforming Ukraine into an honest modern state that offers opportunity and reliable justice will be at least as effective a response to Russia as the current continued hostility and half-hearted efforts in Kiev. To achieve this, he posits a $50 billion aid package, when the EU is having a hard time managing $2 billion. His view is openly idealistic:
By helping Ukraine, Europe may be able to recapture the values and principles on which the European Union was originally founded. That is why I am arguing so passionately that Europe needs to undergo a change of heart. The time to do it is right now.
Right or wrong, this is visionary, and the world of conventional wisdom is not buying it. The U.S. and the EU seem determined to continue taking the familiar and comfortable actions they know will fail in the same old ways.
* Perhaps the most vivid sign that the failures of the past foreshadow the failures of the future is the rise of Senator John McCain to the chairmanship of the Senate Armed Services Committee, where he will sometimes be able to exercise near-veto power over the White House’s constitutional authority to conduct foreign policy. In a fawning verbal lap dance in the N.Y. Times of January 13, Sheryl Gay Stolberg characterizes McCain’s apparent inability to learn from failure as his being “untamed.” The reporter allows that McCain is “bellicose,” but frames his responsibility to the nation and the world as a question of whether he will “make war or some accommodation with the White House.” McCain is on record to increase Pentagon spending and to keep the Guantanamo prison camp open, and speaks with open bitterness about the president’s failure to give him a phone call. As Stolberg says about McCain: “If he had his way, the United States would have ground troops in Syria, more troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a steady supply of arms going to Ukraine.”
Evan as the Ukraine ceasefire was taking effect after the Minsk agreement was signed, McCain was calling for the U.S. to arm Ukraine for defence against a “Russian invasion” that he sees as part of Putin’s plan to “re-establish the old Russian empire.” McCain also called for the U.S. to send military “advisors.”
Maybe the future won’t be dominated by the struggle between those who are satisfied with just a little war on Russia’s border and those who want a whole lot more war because that’s all they know. We’ll see, no doubt. And for now, the unheeded warnings of former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev continue to fall on unhearing ears, and unseeing leaders on all sides grope their way into “a vortex with no way out. How long can the present balance of instability last?”
William M. Boardman has over 40 years experience in theatre, radio, TV, print journalism, and non-fiction, including 20 years in the Vermont judiciary. He has received honors from Writers Guild of America, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Vermont Life magazine, and an Emmy Award nomination from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.