Dynamic towards full-scale confrontation
Kiev’s besieging of cities in eastern Ukraine has ominous parallels, says Eddie Ford
Gaza and Iraq may have been dominating the headlines, but the situation in Ukraine remains highly dangerous - if anything, the crisis appears to be escalating. In what has been dubbed the Donbass war, forces loyal to Kiev have in recent months recaptured a string of cites across eastern Ukraine - including Slavyansk on July 5 - and regained a 121-kilometre stretch of the border with Russia.
Mounting a grim war of attrition, Kiev is now besieging Luhansk and Donetsk - which both declared on June 24 that they had formally merged into the Federal State of Novorossiya (New Russia) as part of the “union of people’s republics”. More than 2,000 people have been killed in the fighting and both cities are now completely surrounded by Kievan forces. Extreme deprivation and even starvation beckons for the inhabitants.
The situation in Luhansk is particularly desperate. Almost 55,000 households have no electricity and 5,000 have no water. Now Horlivka, a city of some 250,000 people, is suffering the same fate. The Kiev government’s armed forces have moved artillery and at least two dozen tanks to a high point on the hills, from where they fire on the city below. Horlivka city council reported on July 28 that 17 civilians, including three children, have so far been killed. Kiev has ludicrously claimed that the separatists fired upon residential areas themselves in order to “discredit” the Kievan army.
One important thing to realise with regards to the Kiev military is that it consist of two parts: the old army, essentially inherited from the Soviet Union, and the ‘unofficial’ or irregular battalions drawn from the likes of Right Sector - overtly fascistic forces with a virulently anti-Russian agenda that takes inspiration from Nazi collaborators. Possibly unlike elements of the official Ukrainian army, these battalions (that loosely comprise the National Guard) will have absolutely no hesitation in raining down artillery fire upon rebellious eastern cities - as we are witnessing now. Inevitably, this will result in massive civilian casualties similar to Gaza. Apart from being ideologically motivated, the fascist brigades are actually better paid than soldiers in the regular army - doubtlessly helping to boost morale.
Another hugely important factor is that Kiev’s military has received fairly generous western backing of one sort or another - and you are talking far more than night vision goggles or smart phones. For example, satellite-assisted technology that enables real-time tracking and monitoring of opposing forces.
Anyhow, as things stand now, 30,000 regular Kievan troops plus the irregulars are opposed by 10,000 relatively disciplined separatist fighters - no cake walk. The army took several weeks to surround and regain Slavyansk, losing several planes, helicopters and top generals in the process.
The current situation in Donbass of horrendously prolonged sieges can only remind you of World War II, and you can be certain that the Russian population - both in eastern Ukraine and in Russia itself - will know all about that. But fighting a deeply embedded opposition in a modern city is always an army’s nightmare scenario. In 2003 the Americans were so daunted by the task of taking Baghdad that they studied how the Russians stormed Grozny.
So starve them out instead? If so, what about the Kremlin - is it supposed to do nothing whilst the populations of Luhansk or Donetsk die a slow death? Obviously, Russian president Vladimir Putin will be forced to act by the sheer weight of Russian public opinion and also by his general strategic opposition to creeping western expansion in what he regards as his backyard - ie, those former Soviet republics on Russia’s western and southern borders (the ‘near abroad’).
In fact, it appears that Putin has acted. On the morning of August 12 a large convoy of 280 Russian trucks departed for eastern Ukraine and was expected to arrive within two days. The Russian foreign ministry said that after “crossing the border” the convoy would “proceed under the auspices” of the International Committee of the Red Cross. According to Russian state television - admittedly not always the most reliable source of information - the trucks contain 2,000 tonnes of aid, including grain, sugar, medicine, sleeping bags and power generators.
Kiev and its western backers reacted with fury. Government spokespeople declared that Kiev would block the “unauthorised” convoy at the border. It spouted nonsense - all dutifully repeated, of course, by the likes of the BBC - about it being a “pretext” for Russian invasion: presumably the trucks are really stuffed full of AK-47s, RPGs and SAMs. Western governments loudly protested, maybe just a bit too much, that Moscow’s “unauthorised” humanitarian intervention would “violate international law” - which tells you all you need to know about international law and who gets to write the rules. The grounds for this ‘violation’, apparently, is that on August 11 an international agreement was reached whereby all aid to the region would be approved and distributed by the ICRC. Andriy Lysenko, a spokesperson for Kiev’s National Security and Defence Council, claimed the Russian aid consignment had not been certified by the Red Cross and therefore was “illegal”. Russia, on the other hand, said a deal been “agreed” with the Kievan side and that representatives from the ICRC, and also the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, would accompany the convoy. As for the Red Cross’s version of events - at least on August 13 - though it was not yet formally involved in the Russian mission, it had agreed “in principle” to the operation, so long as it received “clarification” on some issues and “security guarantees” from all sides.
But, ratcheting up the tensions regardless, Nato’s secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, stated that there was a “high probability” of Russian attack “under the guise of a humanitarian operation” - surely this was a descent into cold war-style paranoia. On August 12, French president François Hollande told Putin in a phone call that he had “grave concerns” about Russia’s ongoing “unilateral” mission in Ukraine. Barack Obama and Angela Merkel issued a joint statement saying that Russia would face “additional consequences” if it went ahead with its convoy without explicit permission from the Kiev government.
What does the west want Kiev to do - block the convoy? Maybe, seeing how Arsen Avakov, Kiev’s minister of internal affairs, posted a Facebook message on August 13 saying that “no Putin ‘humanitarian convoy’” will be allowed across the territory of Kharkiv, describing it as a “provocation by a cynical aggressor”. Western hypocrisy is astounding. It is now intervening militarily in northern Iraq to supposedly prevent the ‘genocide’ of Yazidis, Christian and other minorities trapped on the mountains. But if they spoke Russian they would probably be allowed to starve - if not get fired upon by US fighter jets.
We now have the horrific possibility that all sides in the Ukrainian conflict could drift into a major conflagration in a manner not entirely unlike what happened in 1914 - almost sleepwalking into war. Even though it had been obvious to any intelligent person since at least the 1880s that a major European war was on the horizon, at the beginning of 1914 war did not seem imminent or even that likely. Yet one event led to another, as tends to happen, and the slaughter began.
Basically the US, Nato and the EU have been attempting to extend their sphere of influence far to the east. The EuroMaidan protest served wonderfully here and saw the removal of the elected president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych. Not surprisingly, however, the Kremlin responded by seizing Crimea and offering various forms of assistance to Russian separatist forces.
On June 27 the new president, Petro Poroshenko, signed a free trade agreement with European leaders, slashing import tariffs with the EU and committing the country to a sweeping programme of economic ‘reforms’. Sergei Glazyev, one of Putin’s top advisors, has remarked that the agreement will be “economic suicide” for Ukraine - certainly when it comes to eastern Ukraine he is right. Opening up the country to western competition will decimate the Soviet-era heavy industries of the Russian-speaking east, creating mass unemployment almost at a stroke. At the moment Russia is Ukraine’s single largest export market - accounting for nearly a quarter of the country’s international trade. Predictably, Moscow is taking steps to punish Kiev for its deal with the EU. Various items have been deemed “unsafe” and blocked from the Russian market, like chocolate, cheese and potatoes, for instance - and Moscow has also drastically raised the price Ukraine pays it for natural gas.
Clearly there is a danger of sleepwalking towards a major confrontation. John Kerry, the US secretary of state, has declared that everything will be considered except boots on the ground. Yet this is not exactly reassuring. In reality, once you start sending in ‘advisers’, you are more and more committed to the victory of your client, and, of course, the other side has a tendency to hit back, sometimes in unexpected ways - which in turn will compel the US administration to respond in some shape or form. And frighteningly, unlike 1914, we are, of course, dealing with nuclear-armed powers.