FOREIGN AFFAIRS: by Jeffry Babb News Weekly
Ukrainian borderlands soaked with blood again
, July 5, 2014
Though the actual meaning of “Ukraine” is disputed, one commonly accepted meaning is “borderlands”. Another meaning is “country”. Like another border state, Poland, its strategic location means that it has been a bone of contention between East and West for centuries.
Now the game is on again. Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, never accepted the result of the 2004/05 Orange Revolution. He believed — probably correctly — that the Europeans and the Americans, including multibillionaire George Soros, had given the Western-leaning opposition aid. This included cash and tactical assistance.
Stefan Romaniw, who has recently returned to Australia from Ukraine, says that the situation there is a global issue, and that Putin’s tactics, such as cutting off natural gas supplies, are quite ruthless and have no regard for the punishment being inflicted on the population.
Thwarting this economic warfare, he stresses, requires the assistance of the Western allies, in particular the European Union and the United States. The EU is doing a little, but summer will end in September, and it gets very, very cold in Ukraine without gas.
Romaniw, who is chairman of the Australian Federation of Ukrainian Organisations (AFUO) and secretary-general of the Ukrainian World Congress, says any lasting solution must be peaceful. Time is running out, he warns, and Ukraine’s National Guard must begin moving up into areas which are controlled by Russian irregulars.
Meanwhile, Putin is just thumbing his nose at the United Nations and continuing his advance on Ukraine, while taking advantage of the international community’s attention being diverted by the deteriorating situation in Iraq.
Russia is like a sponge. When it has no moisture, it shrivels and contracts, but when it gets water it starts expanding again. This has occurred many times over the centuries.
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 saw Russia stripped of its republics. Now, it is beginning to expand again.
Georgia was the first former Soviet republic to lose territory; Ukraine is a much bigger operation. Meanwhile, Russian forces are employing similar tactics in the Baltic States, which are much smaller and more vulnerable than Ukraine. These former Soviet republics are called “the near abroad”.
One Russian official contrasted America’s reliance on naval power with Russia being a continental power: “America is a whale and Russia is an elephant.”
Informed observers believe that, in 2006, Putin and his officials developed a long-term strategy to recover these republics and re-incorporate them in the Russian empire, and that they are now in the implementation phase.
In eastern Ukraine, Russia is using highly-trained special forces, in combination with militia, to degrade the Ukrainian government’s capabilities.
The Financial Times of London (June 8, 2014) quoted a senior NATO official as saying that “the sequencing of separatist attacks suggests a guiding hand”. Russian-backed militias first targeted government buildings and communications centres, followed by key supply points and then harder targets such as military installations.
Australian Stephen a’Beckett, who monitors the Ukrainian situation around the clock, believes that the professional personnel directing the insurgency are from Russian military intelligence, the GRU.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the better-known KGB was split in two, its domestic arm becoming the FSB; its external arm, the SVR. The Financial Times says that the FSB, not the SVR, is responsible for much of the dirty work, because Russia regards Ukraine as an internal matter.
The leadership cadre on the ground in Ukraine is very well equipped, but at the same time the Kremlin wishes to retain plausible deniability.
A’Beckett says that, contrary to popular perception, maintaining stability and good governance in the occupied areas is difficult because the militias are full of riff-raff such as Chechens, Afghan War veterans, drunkards and semi-criminal elements. Discipline is often savage and that makes the leadership cadre unpopular.
The situation in eastern Ukraine is not as clear-cut as the Russians would have us believe. Any referendum would be as farcical as are other such plebiscites: you can only vote “yes”.
The coal-mining Donbas region is predominantly Russian-speaking, but not all the inhabitants are of Russian origin. The Russians were there first, but others followed them from all over the empire, and they adopted Russian as a lingua franca. In the villages surrounding the mines, the language most commonly spoken is Ukrainian.
Military analysts are full of grudging praise for the audacity and effectiveness of Russia’s insurgency.
One of them has remarked: “We would describe it as an influence operation. Russia has very effectively employed all the tools of power: information, diplomacy, politics, military might — both overt and unconventional — and economic.”
Russia is also waging cyber warfare against Ukraine.
Ukraine has had suffering heaped upon it. As a buffer state, it has been torn between East and West. Like
Poland, its wide-open plains have meant that mounted Cossack horsemen and Wehrmacht armoured divisions could manoeuvre freely.
Timothy Snyder’s 2010 bestseller, Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin, dissects the suffering inflicted on Ukraine by both the Nazis and Bolsheviks. In Stalin’s Holodomor terror-famine in the early 1930s, some 7.5 million Ukrainians perished from starvation and other causes.
Russia’s strategy, tactics and aims today are those of the former Soviet Union, except that it is no longer communism that is the country’s ruling ideology but Great-Russian chauvinism.
Jeffry Babb is a Melbourne-based writer.