24th Mar 2018


Ukraine: Something bad in the air

  • Every rouble the EU sanctions cost Russia equals fewer dead bodies (Photo: Christopher Bobyn)

Russia’s massive deployment of troops in east Ukraine in recent days indicates an upcoming escalation in Putin’s covert war against Ukraine and the West.

Ever since a Russian military-led offensive in August captured the town Novoazovsk in south-east Ukraine, few had doubts about what would come next.

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Novoazovsk is a bridgehead in the direction of Mariupol, a port town and a Ukrainian stronghold, which prevents Russian leader Vladimir Putin from securing a land corridor to Crimea, which he annexed in March.

Only two questions remain: When will the Mariupol offensive begin and on what pretext?

With winter coming, it is increasingly clear that Russia cannot supply Crimea’s economic needs by sea deliveries alone.

This is precisely why the Soviet Union in its time allowed Crimea - a depressed and heavily-subsidised region - to be part of Ukraine.

Russian nationalists always hated it. But they can no longer ignore the practical realities.

Propaganda getting louder

This is why Russian state media is now amplifying propaganda on “Novorossiya” - Putin’s concept of a new state, which, he claims, is deeply Russian in historical and cultural terms, but which can only come to be if his forces seize around 40 percent of Ukrainian territory.

The Kremlin needs to sell its actions to the Russian people.

It needs to get them ready for their sons to die for a “greater” Russia and to endure in silence the economic hardship caused by Western sanctions.

This is why Putin’s propagandists are not just denying Ukrainian people’s right to have a nation. They are also de-humanising them as fascists who murder civilians only because they speak Russian.

These days in Russia you can be arrested just for wearing clothes in the blue and yellow colours of the Ukrainian flag.

At the same time, Russian politicians are openly saying that Russia’s actions in Ukraine are justified because the West orchestrated “colour revolutions” in former Soviet states and in Yugoslavia.

Naturally, it was nothing to do with the legitimate aspirations of people to live in free, sovereign countries.

Well-financed, multilingual Russian media are pumping out anti-Ukrainian and anti-Western hysteria without any repercussions.

The Baltic states have introduced some curbs on Russian hate-TV. But elsewhere, Russia is getting away with its brainwashing in the name of media pluralism.

In Slovakia, for instance, the media regulator recently complained that the country’s national TV station, RTVS, was not objective in its coverage of the annexation of Crimea because it did not give the Russian point of view.

It did not give the point of view of an administration which has positioned itself to be, once again, one of the world’s top security threats.

Sociology reveals a bitter truth: a more aggressive foreign policy translates into higher domestic support for Putin.

The Russian leadership wants to be feared by international actors and wants the Russian people to fear the outside world.

It is working: The West has refused to give arms to Ukraine and Russian people, according to recent polls, support Putin more than ever.

Russian society never healed itself of its Soviet sickness. Stalin is still feted as a national hero despite his genocides.

At the same time, Western leaders have, for years, ignored Russia’s slow transformation back into a totalitarian state.

They smiled and shook Putin’s hand at summits, they called him a “partner”, and they negotiated treaties despite his crass statements, his crackdown on Russian liberals, and his military intimidation of neighbouring countries.

The smiles paved the way for the rise of Russian revanchism, chauvinism, xenophobia, and imperialism.

Europe’s blind greed of putting economic interests before liberal principles helped bring us to where we are today: the brink of war in Europe.

Eyes wide open

But Ukrainian leaders have their eyes wide open.

Their UN and EU envoys recently warned that Russia is preparing a full-scale invasion. Most politically-literate people in Ukraine see it coming.

For a moment - the ceasefire accord on 5 September in Minsk - the Ukrainian government thought it had seen something else: the chance of a peaceful end to the Russian invasion.

The moment was fleeting.

When the Russia-controlled forces in the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk “republics” elected themselves into power in breach of the Minsk protocols the illusion of peace vanished.

The rogue elections sent the message: “We are here to stay and the Russian troops are here to stay to make it so”.

Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko paid a hefty price for advocating that illusion.

His eponymous bloc won just 22 percent of votes in October parliamentary elections - a big fall from his 54 percent support in presidential elections in May.

Ukrainians punished him for his “peace plan” amid a “ceasefire” which saw Russian forces launch 2,700 attacks, kill more than 100 Ukrainian soldiers, and snatch more land.

It wasn’t Poroshenko’s fault, of course. Poroshenko cannot stop Putin unless the West helps him. But the West told him to sign up to Minsk out of fear of war.

Despite the blood the Ukrainian people shed for their euro-integration dreams, too many EU capitals see Ukraine as a buffer zone rather than as a strategic partner.

The West’s moveable red lines, the leniency of its sanctions, its refusal to arm Ukraine did nothing but feed Putin’s appetite.

Its original sin was its late reaction to Russia’s occupation of Crimea.

Ukraine was too weak to fight back alone, but the West played dumb when little green men - balaclava-wearing Russian soldiers with no insignia - took control.

The outcome is that Russia - according to credible reports - is now moving parts of its nuclear arsenal to the Ukrainian peninsula.

When the conflict re-escalates, as it will, it is imperative the West imposes tougher sanctions and gives arms to Ukraine.

Every rouble counts

Every rouble the Russian economy loses from EU and US sanctions means fewer dead bodies in the east and south-east of the country.

Even for the cynics who see Ukraine as a buffer zone, the Ukrainian military can only stop Putin if it has Western weapons.

Let us have no doubts that Putin’s plan goes not just beyond Crimea, Novorossiya, and Ukraine. It goes also to the Baltic states and even further.

His aim is to debilitate the EU and Nato because they are the only obstacles against Russian hegemony in Europe.

It is no accident that his best friends in Brussels, Berlin, London, and Paris are anti-EU parties on the far right and left.

The costs of stopping him grow every day. He escalates in order to improve his bargaining position.

The way to counter Putin is to sacrifice Western economic interests for the sake of defending Western values. It is to step up diplomacy to get non-Nato countries in Europe and non-aligned states around the world to isolate his regime.

But let’s not pray for miracles while he stays in power.

He has left himself almost zero political space to step back on his gains in Ukraine. His machine is stuck in forward gear.

Instead of talking about respect for international law, or territorial integrities, perhaps it's time to start sending a new message to Russia: “If you want to get back to business as usual on civilised terms then Putin must go”.

Roman Sohn is a Ukrainian activist and columnist, who also contributes to Ukrainska Pravda, an investigative news agency in Kiev


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