Right Sector turned itself into a political party but retained its armed battalions, allied with the football ‘ultras’, and went to war in the south-east. In April the Donbas battalion was created, while the Aidar battalion was drawn from the mainstream Maidan self-defence units. The Azov battalion drew particular attention for the ferocity of its commitment, taking the Donetsk suburb of Marinka in late July and thereby opening the path for regular forces to attack the city. Azov flew the neo-Nazi Wolfsangel (Wolf’s Hook) on the background of the Schwarze Sonne (Black Sun) on their banner. The battalion was founded by Andriy Biletsky, the head of the extremist Social–National Assembly, who argued: ‘The historic mission of our nation in this critical moment is to lead the White Races of the world in a final crusade for their survival […] A crusade against the Semite-led Untermenschen.’ Their ideology harked back to the integral nationalism of the 1930s and 1940s, aiming to create a ‘natsiokratiya’ (ethnocracy) based on syndicates representing the different classes of the population. They appealed to Ukraine’s European identity, but their Europe was one of corporatism and traditionalism: ‘We consider the present tendency of Europe leads to the destruction of civilisation, with no control of immigration, the destruction of the family, of religious identity and of everything that made Europe Europe.’ This was accompanied by an assertive foreign policy that included the nuclear rearmament of Ukraine. On 23 July Svoboda registered a motion with the Rada’s secretariat to restore Ukraine’s status as a nuclear power. Rather surprisingly, this evoked no response from the Atlantic security community. In the end some three dozen volunteer battalions were created, with the number of fighters swelling to around 8,000. While formally subordinate to the Ukrainian Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD), they were in effect private armies. These proto-Freikorps forces attracted all sorts of malcontents and radicals from across Ukraine, and represented a substantial threat to Poroshenko’s ability to pursue an independent policy. He was constantly threatened by a ‘third Maidan’ when he suggested compromises, and these forces would take control if the government fell.
The fighting became increasingly vicious, with significant casualties on both sides, accompanied by the exodus of citizens who now became refugees if they crossed into Russia, or ‘internally displaced persons’ (IDPs) if they moved elsewhere in Ukraine. Unleashed against the insurgency was a crew no less motley than the insurgents themselves. The new National Guard absorbed most of the Maidan militants, among whom, as we have seen, right-wing nationalists figured prominently, and their indiscipline and cruelty in the Donbas became infamous. The volunteer detachments organised by ‘warlords’ such as Kolomoisky added to the volatile mix, as did the worker detachments raised by regional oligarchs such as Akhmetov. There were also volunteer units created by politicians. The most famous of these was Oleg Lyashko, who led volunteer battalions to the region. In a famous incident in mid-May he was seen humiliating a captured insurgent and the self-proclaimed defence minister of the DPR, Igor Kakidzyanov, who appeared in his underwear and with his hands bound. The trademark signature of his black-clad paramilitaries was to strip captives to their underwear, put bags on their heads, and lecture them on camera for their treacherous behaviour. His popularity soared, turning him into a serious political force and winning him over 8 per cent of the vote in the presidential election. Only later did the regular army take the initiative and lead the offensive.
The armed forces had been starved of funds for two decades, and under Yanukovych their resources had been pillaged. As Parubiy, secretary of the NSDC, put it:
Unfortunately, we now realize that our defense forces were deliberately sabotaged and weakened by the previous government in Kiev, in collaboration with Moscow, to subordinate Ukraine to Russia’s imperialist policies. We inherited a dilapidated army, a security and intelligence service awash with Russian agents, a demoralized law-enforcement system and corrupt courts and prosecutors.
The poor state of the Ukraine armed forces was soon exposed. Much of its weaponry and other materiel had been allowed to decay or been sold off, and there were not many more than 6,000 combat-ready troops in an army numbering some 80,000. The regular armed forces lacked training, intelligence equipment and geo-referencing systems. Once launched into combat, the army suffered from defections and desertions. Attempts by the Ukrainian military to dislodge the militants, including the use of air power and later Grad missile-launchers in civilian areas, did little more than harden local sentiment against Kiev. The creation of the National Guard, consisting largely of far right militants and others from the Maidan self-defence forces, had the advantage of removing these militants from the centre of Kiev and other western Ukrainian towns, but they often lacked discipline and treated south-east Ukraine as occupied territory, regularly committing atrocities against civilians and captured ‘terrorists’. In addition, the ‘third force’ of oligarch-sponsored irregular militias, notably those funded by Kolomoisky, added to the volatile mix.
In his speech at West Point on 28 May, Obama boasted of American success in isolating Russia. He dismissed those who suggest that ‘America is in decline, or has seen its global leadership slip away – [they] are either misreading history or engaged in partisan politics’, and insisted that ‘America must always lead on the world stage’. As for the current crisis:
In Ukraine, Russia’s recent actions recall the days when Soviet tanks rolled into Eastern Europe. But this isn’t the Cold War. Our ability to shape world opinion helped isolate Russia right away. Because of American leadership, the world immediately condemned Russian actions. Europe and the G-7 joined with us to impose sanctions. NATO reinforced our commitment to Eastern European allies. The IMF is helping to stabilize Ukraine’s economy. OSCE monitors brought the eyes of the world to unstable parts of Ukraine. This mobilization of world opinion and institutions served as a counterweight to Russian propaganda, Russian troops on the border, and armed militias.
Soon after, Obama’s visit to Europe, including Poland, to commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy, was once again used as an occasion to isolate Russia. The French president, François Hollande, however, took the opportunity to engineer a meeting between Putin and the newly elected Poroshenko, establishing what was to become a pragmatic period of interaction. In all of this, the EU as an institution was redundant and could not be taken as a serious, positive independent player in European – let alone world – politics.
NO WAY OUT
On coming to office, Poroshenko outlined three main challenges: the preservation of a ‘unified Ukraine’, including stability in eastern Ukraine; the European choice for closer ties to the West; and the return of Crimea. The latter goal, he stressed, would be pursued through diplomatic methods and excluded the military option. As for maintaining the unity of Ukraine, this was obviously a priority and one that had a solid basis. Numerous opinion polls in early 2014 repeatedly showed sizeable majorities in the east and the south supporting Ukrainian unity and only small minorities in favour of secession or accession to Russia. In the event, Poroshenko was unable to build on what was clearly a strong sense of membership of the Ukrainian state, although favouring a pluralist interpretation. Instead, his initial comments were far from conciliatory: ‘The first steps of our entire team at the beginning of the presidency will concentrate on ending the war, ending the chaos, ending the disorder and bringing peace to Ukrainian soil, to a united, single Ukraine.’ His promise to wrap up the ATO ‘in a matter of hours’ entrenched the hardliners on both sides, and the irreconcilable tone was repeated in his inaugural speech on 7 June.
The insurgents in the south-east were characterised as ‘terrorists’, and thus their demands and concerns were rendered null and void. The resolution of the long-standing Ukrainian identity, it appeared, would be settled on the battlefield. The ATO was intensified, with the regular army reinforced by volunteers in the National Guard. On 5 June the Verkhovna Rada adopted changes to the law on terrorism, signed into law by the president on 18 June, giving greater powers to the security forces and legalising the use of the regular army in ‘counter-terrorism’ operations. Commanders gained the power ‘to temporarily restrict the rights of local populations’ as well as to ‘shut down business entities – fully or partially’. On the other side, the Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov proposed a resolution to the UN, but stressed that it would not include the introduction of Russian peacekeepers to the region, a demand repeatedly made by the rebels. A genuine peacekeeping force could only be introduced if sanctioned by the UN Security Council, otherwise it would be another term for occupation.
After several false starts, on 20 June Poroshenko announced a unilateral ceasefire to last a week, while outlining a 15-point peace plan. Building on the Geneva deal, he proposed an amnesty for rebel fighters who had not committed serious crimes, as well as safe passage for volunteers seeking to return to Russia. It also called for decentralisation that would allow a greater degree of self-rule in the east, the fundamental demand of the militants. The insurgents were to surrender and a 10-kilometre-wide security zone would be established along the border with Russia, while the decentralisation excluded federalisation or official status for the Russian language. On 23 June talks were held in Donetsk involving Poroshenko’s representative, the former Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma, and the militant leaders. Also in attendance was an OSCE representative, the Russian ambassador to Ukraine, the pro-Russian politician Viktor Medvedchuk (on the US sanctions list for his part in the annexation of Crimea). The fact that he was trusted in Moscow rendered him suspicious to the new Ukrainian authorities. Following the meeting, the self-declared prime minister of DPR, Alexander Borodai, announced that the militants also agreed to the ceasefire. It was soon threatened when on 24 June the insurgents shot down the helicopter that was carrying equipment and specialists to monitor the ceasefire near Slavyansk, killing nine personnel.
On that day the Russian Federation Council revoked the ruling of 1 March, adopted before the annexation of Crimea, that authorised Russia to deploy troops on Ukrainian territory, ‘in order to normalise and regulate the situation in the eastern regions of Ukraine, and due to the start of the three-way talks on the issue’, as Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov put it. In 2009 the Russian president had been granted a ‘universal mandate’ allowing him to deploy troops abroad, so this act was meant to signal that Moscow was set on the path of conciliation. Throughout, Russian actions lacked consistency and even coherence. There was no response to the first wave of sanctions imposed in April, whereas retaliation in the form, for example, of stopping cooperation over Afghanistan and blocking the Northern Distribution Network, the rail route for the removal of American forces and materiel, or even withdrawal from the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), would have signalled Russia’s readiness for confrontation. Instead, the repeal signalled Russia’s openness for rapprochement and that the country would not intervene militarily, but this allowed the full force of the Ukrainian armed forces to be unleashed against the Donbas militants. Despite the virulence of the anti-Western campaign, Putin clearly did not want to burn all the bridges back to a normal relationship with the EU and the US. Nevertheless, the exploitation of unrest in the south-east to exercise leverage over the rest of Ukraine to achieve desired policy outcomes – notably federalisation and neutralisation – remained.
The insurgents had earlier insisted that there could be no talks until Ukraine withdrew its forces, but, after consultations in Moscow, Borodai (who is a Russian citizen) softened his stance. His security advisor was Sergei Kavtaradze, a military historian and an expert on the conduct of civil wars. This was another example of the eclectic character of the rebel leadership. Borodai compared the fighting in the Donbas with the Spanish Civil War, as it drew in volunteers (notably from Serbia) to join the new international brigades, now united around the ideology of anti-Americanism and geopolitical pluralism. The negotiations were also attended by Alexander Khodakovsky, the commander of the Vostok battalion (no connection with the body of the same name in the Chechen wars), and Valery Bolotov, the leader of the insurgent forces in Lugansk. Notably absent was Girkin, also a Russian citizen, who commanded the insurgent forces in Slavyansk. Speaking in Vienna on 24 June, Putin warned that a ceasefire and calling on the rebels to disarm without addressing their long-term political grievances would come to nothing. He qualified his support for Poroshenko’s plan by insisting:
It is important that this ceasefire open the way to a dialogue between all of the parties to the combat, so as to find solutions that will be acceptable to all sides, in order to ensure that people in south-east Ukraine have no doubt that they are an integral part of the country.
The talks gave no immediate breakthrough, and Poroshenko’s peace plan was condemned at a four-hour extended meeting with the hawkish NSDC on 30 June. Poroshenko’s proposal to extend the ceasefire was now dropped, and on 1 July he announced the resumption of hostilities: ‘We will attack and we will liberate our land. The end of the ceasefire is our response to terrorists, rebels, looters, all those who mock civilians, who paralyze the economy of the region.’ The ceasefire was perceived to have given the insurgents a chance to rearm and regroup. There was not a word here about reaching out to his citizens in the south-east; and, indeed, in the words of one Moscow Times journalist, the lack of compassion ‘by residents of both Moscow and Kiev over the conflict in eastern Ukraine and the future of Ukraine as a whole ought to give us serious pause’. A hate-filled generation was being nurtured. Poroshenko had come under enormous pressure from the ‘war party’ in Kiev to continue the attack, with the NSDC urging him to take active measures. Lyashko reported that he had heard from the president ‘what he had wanted to hear from him’, and, satisfied, he returned to continue his vigilante activities on the eastern front.
There was also a ‘war party’ in Washington, although both US vice president Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry urged Kiev to exercise restraint. It was not clear that Kerry was able to control his subordinates. Equally, the relationship with Kiev assumed some classic Cold War features, in which the ‘client’ tail was able to wag the ‘patron’ dog. There was very little at stake for the US in renewed conflict, whereas the burden of the Ukraine crisis would be borne by Russia and its European partners. Although Poroshenko was responding to the demands for a military victory coming from radical nationalists, in the end his position was weakened by revulsion at the heavy death toll and the destruction of the Donbas. There were many cases in which Kiev’s forces refused orders to fire on their compatriots. In the end over 90 per cent of Ukrainian armed forces were deployed in the south-east, accompanied by successive waves of call-up reservists. The Ukrainian armed forces had learned to avoid infantry combat, and instead launched air strikes and long-range artillery bombardments against apartment blocks and villages. This rained down indiscriminate fire on heavily populated areas, causing numerous civilian casualties. This was justified by alleging that the rebels placed their own ordinance next to civilian objects. There are documented cases of this, although in heavily built areas almost any position would be next to a hospital or school; and, as the UN stressed during the Israeli bombardment of Gaza in July and August, the laws of war state that there is no excuse for killing civilians. It looked as if the tide of war was turning to Kiev’s advantage.
Stephen Cohen notes how on 2 May at the UN Security Council the US ambassador, Samantha Power, suspended
her revered ‘Responsibility to Protect’ doctrine, [and] gave Kiev’s leaders a US license to kill. Lauding their ‘remarkable, almost unimaginable, restraint’, as Obama himself did after Odessa, she continued, ‘Their response is reasonable, it is proportional, and frankly it is what any one of our countries would have done.’
Cohen notes that on 26 June Kerry demanded that the Russian president ‘in the next few hours […] help disarm’ the resistance in the south-east, ‘as though they are not motivated by any of Ukraine’s indigenous conflicts but are merely Putin’s private militias’. In sum:
We may honourably disagree about the causes and resolution of the Ukrainian crisis, the worst US–Russian confrontation in decades, but not about the deeds that are rising to the level of war crimes, if they have not already done so.
In early July an intensive round of diplomacy was led by the German and French foreign ministers, Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Laurent Fabius respectively. A hastily convened meeting in Berlin on 2 July brought them together with Lavrov and the new Ukrainian foreign minister, Pavlo Klimkin. As far as the Russians were concerned, the absence of the Americans increased the chances of the peaceful regulation of the conflict. As Lavrov put it in a television interview on 28 June: ‘Peace within the warring country [Ukraine] is more likely if negotiations were left to Russia and Europe’, and he noted: ‘Our American colleagues still favour pushing the Ukrainian leadership towards confrontation.’ The hawks in Washington warned the Europeans against ‘craven surrender’ to Russian aggression (in the words of a Washington Post editorial on 2 July), but European leaders were beginning, surprisingly, to show some independent resolve. The provisional deal of 2 July was far-reaching, and included not only a ceasefire and further talks involving the OSCE but also strengthened control over the Russo-Ukrainian border, which would stop the supply of personnel and materiel to the insurgents. The Donbas resistance movement now turned into fierce critics of Putin, accusing him of betrayal and worse. Such nuances were lost on the hawks, with the Washington Post thundering: ‘A failure by the West to act following such explicit rhetoric would be a craven surrender that would provoke only more Russian aggression’.
On 5 July the insurgent forces under Girkin retreated from Slavyansk and regrouped in Donetsk. By that time over 100,000 refugees had fled the region. Clearly, no help was officially going to come from Russia, despite Girkin’s appeals for military aid. The rebels now faced almost certain defeat as the Ukrainian army advanced on all sides. As Pavel Gubarev, the former advertising executive and extreme Russian nationalist who became one of the founders of the DPR, put it on 9 July: ‘We are surrounded – we will defend our city to the end, there is no room to move back – we have a situation where we must win or die.’ The imposition of a new round of American sanctions on 16 July further narrowed Putin’s room for manoeuvre. What could have been the quiet withdrawal of support to groups who had never entirely been controllable proxies would now look like capitulation to hostile Western powers, and that was simply politically impossible in the febrile atmosphere in Russia that the regime had done so much to provoke. Intensified sanctions at this point were entirely counterproductive.
By July 2014 the combined interior-ministry forces, including the National Guard, had swelled to 35,000, including some from abroad, reinforcing the 77,000 regular troops. On 31 July the Ukrainian parliament authorised an additional $743 million for the army, to be financed by a mandatory ‘war tax’ of 1.5 per cent on all incomes. Already Ukraine was the second-worst-performing economy in the world, with the hryvnia losing 70 per cent of its value by September, when it was trading at 14 to the dollar, a deep recession that the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) expected would see a 9 per cent year-on-year fall in GDP. Prices and unemployment were rising fast. The Donbas had provided a sixth of Ukrainian GDP, but war had removed much of that. Nevertheless, money could still be found to strengthen the frontier. The head of the NSDC, Parubiy, announced on 16 June that Ukraine planned to build a wall along its border with Russia to ‘avoid any future provocations from the Russian side’. On 5 September Yatsenyuk announced the plan to build what was later called the ‘European Rampart’ (Evropeisky val) along the border with Russia. In the first instance there would be a four-metre-wide and two-metre-deep ditch equipped with electronic systems. On the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, there can be no better symbol of the failure of European politics in our era.
The conflict provoked a humanitarian catastrophe. The generation whose grandparents had suffered so much during collectivisation and World War II looked forward to living in peace in a Europe, ‘whole and free’, but once again they were visited by war. By June some 250 hotels, summer camps and other sites were converted into centres housing up to 30,000 refugees, while another 70,000 escaped across the border into Russia. By late August the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) reported that at least 285,000 people had fled their homes because of the conflict, with some 190,000 IDPs in Ukraine and 17,000 in Crimea. In addition, 25,000 had gone to Belarus, 1,250 to Poland, and 207,000 to Russia, of whom 88,000 asked for temporary refuge and 119,000 applied either for temporary residence or citizenship. The authorities reported that over 800,000 Ukrainians had entered Russia without registering. In July Amnesty International issued a report detailing kidnapping and torture in eastern Ukraine, and in September a further report criticised the ‘non-selective’ shooting, as a result of which over 1,000 civilians died. The report condemned the lack of oversight over the volunteer units, condemning in particular the Aidar battalion for ‘abductions, unlawful detention, ill-treatment, theft, extortion and possible executions’.
From the very beginning Russian policy was caught between bad and very bad options. It was clear that ‘Novorossiya’ was not Crimea, where there had long been a powerful irredentist movement calling for reunification with Russia. There was nothing of the sort in the Donbas, where the overwhelming majority sought a new settlement within Ukraine. Separatist aspirations only came later, after Yanukovych fled and the new authorities made several ill-judged moves in the absence of effective representation from the east, and then launched an all-out war against ‘terrorists’. The fragmented and questionable nature of the resistance, moreover, meant that Moscow lacked a credible interlocutor in Ukraine. The only serious politician who could have fulfilled this role was Medvedchuk, Kuchma’s former chief of staff, but he was unpopular and was associated with too many failed projects. Above all, the political programme advanced by Moscow lacked substantive popularity in Ukraine. Only 13 per cent, for example, supported the idea of federalisation. This helps explain Moscow’s more conciliatory approach, reinforced by the fear of ‘level-three’ sanctions that would be designed to blast whole sectors of the Russian economy. Russia and Europe sought to avoid moving to that stage, which would immeasurably damage both.
In his speech to diplomats on 1 July Putin adopted a regretful tone. He put the conflict in a broader context:
We need to understand clearly that the events provoked in Ukraine are the concentrated outcome of the notorious containment policy. As you know, its roots lie deep in history and it is clear that unfortunately this policy did not stop with the end of the Cold War. […] I would like to stress that what happened in Ukraine was the culmination of the negative tendencies in international affairs that had been building up for years. We have long been warning about this, and unfortunately, our predictions came true.
He outlined Russia’s main concerns:
What did our partners expect from us as the developments in Ukraine unfolded? We clearly had no right to abandon the residents of Crimea and Sevastopol to the mercy of nationalist and radical militants; we could not allow our access to the Black Sea to be significantly limited; we could not allow NATO forces to eventually come to the land of Crimea and Sevastopol, the land of Russian military glory, and cardinally change the balance of forces in the Black Sea area. This would mean giving up practically everything that Russia had fought for since the times of Peter the Great, or maybe even earlier – historians should know.
As for the latest peace attempts, he stressed the active part played by Russian diplomats, but:
Unfortunately, President Poroshenko has resolved to resume military action, and we failed – when I say ‘we’, I mean my colleagues in Europe and myself – we failed to convince him that the road to a secure, stable and inviolable peace cannot lie through war. So far, Mr Poroshenko was not directly linked to the order to begin military action, and only now did he take full responsibility, and not only military, but political as well, which is much more important.
The four-party Berlin talks had offered a genuine chance of stopping the violence, but it appeared that the hawks preferred war rather than a deal in which Russia was involved. Putin had prevented the US from launching a bombing campaign in Syria in September 2013, and Washington sought at all costs to avoid Russia once again garnering the laurels of peace. The Ukrainian offensive breached several international treaties on the conduct of war, and in due course the Kiev regime would have to answer for its actions to international war crimes tribunals.
Putin was coming under enormous pressure to offer succour to the Donbas insurgents and to stop the killing of civilians. As Putin put it in his 1 July speech, he ‘would like to make clear’ that Moscow would be compelled to protect ‘Russians and Russian-speaking citizens of Ukraine […] I am referring to people who consider themselves part of the broad Russian community; they may not necessarily be ethnic Russians, but they consider themselves Russian people.’ There had been a powerful upwelling of domestic support for the resistance movement in the Donbas, to which Putin’s fate now became effectively tied – a situation of dependency that he had devoted his whole presidency to avoiding. Already insurgent leaders, such as Girkin, were loudly accusing the Kremlin of betrayal in not providing adequate support. Radicals and nationalists, such as Alexander Dugin, Sergei Kurginyan and Alexander Barkashov (head of the ultra-nationalist Russian National Unity), were raising money, recruiting volunteers and using their extensive influence in Russia’s security establishment to provide support for the Donbas rebels.
There was much talk of Russia mimicking the West and imposing a no-fly zone over the Donbas, although in the end Russia appears to have decided to remove Ukraine’s control of the air by covertly supplying anti-aircraft missiles. There was increasing pressure for some sort of ‘humanitarian’ intervention to assist the suffering population, but which would also block Kiev’s military victory. There was a full-scale war and a massive humanitarian disaster on Russia’s doorstep, but a military intervention threatened to draw Russia into a direct conflict with Ukraine and its Western backers, a conflict that Russia could not hope to win. Like the Afghanistan war in the 1980s, the outcome could in the end be the fall of the government in Moscow. Unlike the Soviet Union, however, Putin faced powerful domestic pressures.
In his study of the Ukraine crisis, the well-known Russian publicist Nikolai Starikov argued that in 2013 Russia moved from its long-term defensive posture to a more activist diplomacy. In Syria, for example, ‘Russia did not allow Syrian statehood to be destroyed by the [United] States’; in Ukraine the EU’s ‘blitzkrieg’ was repulsed, and in general Russia found itself on the frontline against the aggressive world politics of the US. Starikov is only one of a vast ‘nationalist’ civil society that long pre-dates Putin, and towards which after 2012 Putin tacked (having lost the support of the liberal intelligentsia), but which was certainly far from satisfied with his characteristic caution. Indeed, disappointed nationalists began to compare him to Slobodan Milošević, who had fuelled intense Serbian nationalism against Croats and others, only to back down under Western pressure and betray the Serbian diaspora. Although Putin presides over an all-encompassing power system, there are domestic constraints that deprive him of the total ‘agency’ powers assumed by his critics.