Mainstream, VOL LII, No 38, September 13, 2014
Turning-point in Ukraine Crisis
Saturday 13 September 2014, by
It seems the turning-point in the Ukrainian crisis has finally arrived after more than four months of civil war in the country that has claimed thousands of innocent lives. When Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko’s promise to end the war in several hours could not be materialised, he set a new deadline for bringing the rebels to their knees in the east of the country. This time it was August 24—Ukraine’s independence day—which President Poros-henko had planned to celebrate with a lot of fanfare that was to include a victory parade in the centre of the capital. Poroshenko did celebrate the occasion with a military parade in the capital Kiev’s city centre, but that can barely be called a victory parade.
The irony lies in the fact that Ukraine’s independence day heralded the much-talked-about rebel offensive in Novorussia. In an imitation of the historic parade in Moscow’s Red Square in November 1941 when soldiers marched immediately after the parade to the front to fight the fascist forces that had reached the Soviet capital’s suburb, Poroshenko had planned his parade in a similar way when the Ukrainian armed forces taking part in the independence day parade leave the capital for participating in the so-called Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO) in the east. In a severe blow to the President’s prestige, many soldiers disappeared on their way to the war-torn east Ukraine, the site of the horrifying civil war. The so-called victory parade turned out to be a pathetic show with most of the weaponries demonstrated in it being obsolete or hurriedly repaired for the parade. The parade, that was planned to demonstrate Ukraine’s military might in order to boost the morale of the people, turned out to be a damp Squib. To add insult to injury for the ruling Ukrainian establishment, the authorities in the rebel-controlled Donbas organised a parade of captured Ukrainian soldiers much to the humiliation of Kiev.
The rebels, after organising themselves as a professional Army over months, have finally launched a massive offensive against the Ukrainian forces who are on the run or trapped in different areas. And their offensive began on the independence day when Kiev was to establish full control over its rebellious regions. Rebels, in their onward march, are capturing village after village, town after town forcing the government forces to surrender. It is matter of a few days before Mariupol, the third largest industrial city and strategically important port on the Azov Sea, falls to the rebels. According to information available from sources in Mariupol, the pro-Kiev bureaucrats working in the Mariupol administration are hurriedly abandoning the city just like rats leave a sinking ship. Though official Ukrainian troops outnumber the rebels several times, have more sophisticated arms and better striking power, they are so demoralised that they can hardly halt the rebels’ offensive. Hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers are surrendering and hundreds are being killed every day.
The Ukrainian armed forces as well as the private armies like Aidar, Donbass, Dnepr, Shakhtyorsk, Azov—organised and financed by oligarchs—have been mostly encircled in Olenovka, Starobeshovo, Voikovski, Kuteinikovo, Blagodatnoye, Alekseevskoe, Uspenka, Stepanovka, Amroseevko etc. areas. Alexander Zakharchenko, the Prime Minister and Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces of the self-proclaimed Donetsk republic, has declared that he guarantees life and security for all soldiers and officers of the Ukrainian Army if they cease their resistance. Zakharchenko has promised them security if they stop resistance and surrender their personal arms and heavy weaponry to the rebel commanders. He has also promised to provide medical assistance to the injured soldiers and hand over those who voluntarily give up weapons to the Soldiers’ Mothers Committee, an organisation of women fighting against Kiev’s military adventure. If the encircled Ukrainian forces do not accept these conditions, the rebel forces would be compelled to kill them, Zakharchenko has warned.
President Poroshenko, facing imminent defeat, has raised the bogey of ‘Russian invasion’, which has been shamelessly and irresponsibly parroted by the international media as if Russia has really made an attack on Ukraine. While President Poroshenko has resorted to this lie in an attempt to whitewash his defeat, the international media has focussed on “Russian invasion“ to malign Russia. While some sections of the media have quoted anonymous NATO sources to highlight “Russian invasion” against Ukraine, US President Barack Obama has reacted by saying that he would like to believe what NATO sources say but there is no hard evidence of Russia’s direct invasion on Ukraine. US satellites are capable enough to take the pictures of even number-plates of automobiles. Cannot they take pictures of Russian troop movements into Ukrainian territory and show those to the world before accusing Moscow of invasion? In- stead of displaying a shred of evidence the US has conveniently joined the chorus about Russian invasion against Ukraine in yet another obnoxious attempt to malign Moscow just like in the case of the crash of the Malaysian aircraft on July 17 over Ukrainian sky whose investi-gation report has not even been made public after one-and-a-half month of the incident. However, the truth is that there are hundreds of Russian volunteers in Donetsk and Lugansk region just like hundreds of mercenaries from the US, Poland and even from Russia who are fighting alongside the official Ukrainian forces. Hundreds of mercenaries from private US companies like Greystone and Black Water etc. are fighting against the pro-Russian rebels in the east of Ukraine. In this connection, the state-ment of Vitaly Churkin, the Permanent Represen-tative of Russia at the UNSC, is noteworthy. Churkin, responding to Samanta Power, the US representative at the UNSC, said: “Everybody knows there are Russian volunteers in the east of Ukraine; nobody denies it. We would like that other countries should demonstrate similar transparency on their part. Let our US colleagues tell to the world what dozens of US advisors are doing in Ukraine’s Council of Defence and Security building. Let them tell how many US mercenaries from so-called private security firms are fighting thousands of kilometres away from their shores, and wherefrom Ukraine received the latest weapon systems.”
Even as the international media makes a hue and cry about “Russian invasion“, the rebel leaders are apparently contemplating to launch their offensive in several directions. Establish-ment of full control over a long patch of border with Russia by rebel forces is no doubt a significant development as it would facilitate supplies from Russia. Experts believe that the takeover of the Mariupol port on the Azov Sea would facilitate arms supplies from South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the two independent states under Moscow’s control.
Analysts are splitting their hair over the possible new destinations towards which the rebel forces would march forward in the coming weeks after they establish full control over the Donetsk and Lugansk regions. The million dollar question is: which directions are likely to be the priority directions in the territorial expansion plan of the rebels? Of course, there is no guarantee that the rebel offensive would be crowned with full success. There is also no certainty that rebel forces can continue their massive offensive with the same speed and spirit towards Kharkov, Dnepropetrovsk, Zaporozhe in the coming weeks. After all, President Poroshenko has promised to revamp his Army by spending US $ 3 billion and through the military assistance promised from the West. The just concluded NATO summit in Wales has also promised to provide military assistance to Ukraine.
However, most experts believe that Ukraine’s demoralised Army can hardly be able to launch a counter-offensive against the rebel forces any time soon. And the three priority destinations for the rebels’ onward march are likely to be Kharkov, Dnepropetrovsk and Zaporozhe—the three most industrialised cities in the east. In fact, rebel forces have already captured several villages in Zaporozhe district, triggering panic among the oligarchs who control the region. Kharkov can be a priority destination as there is tremendous support for the idea of making Ukraine a federation and the guerrilla movement in the region is already picking up. Kharkov is Ukraine’s old capital with a huge number of ethnic Russians as well as Russian-speaking people. Its massive heavy industry is linked to Russia. That is why the probability of local support for the rebel forces is fairly high. All these are no doubt positive factors for the rebel offensive towards Kharkov.
Another important destination for the rebel offensive is Dnepropetrovsk, an industrial city controlled by the notorious oligarch, Igor Kolo-moisky. The region’s geographical location provides advantages for establishing easy control over Zaporozhe and even Kharkov. That is why the takeover of Dnepropetrovsk will make many things easier for the rebels. Fall of Dnepropetrovsk and Zaporozhe would largely pave the way for establishing an independent Novorussia extending from Kharkov to Odessa. However, the takeover of Dnepropetrovsk may not be so easy as it is controlled by the notorious oligarch, Kolomoisky, who has his own private army and a lot of resources. By the way, Kolomoisky, panicked by the rebel advance, has convened an emergency meeting of the Council of Defence of the region while President Poros-henko has called an emergency meeting of the Council for National Security and Defence. Kolomoisky is apparently making emergency plans to defend his fort by all means. According to Russian military expert Vladimir Timoshenko, after establishing control over Mariupol in the south, the major objective of the rebel forces would be to establish control over Kharkov, Dnepropetrovsk and Zaporozhe in the upcoming autumn.
In the meantime, President Poroshenko, disappointed by his Army’s humiliating defeat at the rebels’ hands, has extended an olive branch to the anti-government forces for establishing a ceasefire. President Putin and President Poroshenko during their first meeting in many months in Minsk on July 26, did talk about a ceasefire but the talks did not produce any tangible result. However, their telephonic conversation on August 3 suddenly brightened the hopes for a ceasefire. In the backdrop of a humiliating defeat glaring straight into his eyes, Poroshenko, who was earlier exclusively insisting on the rebels giving up arms, has been forced to adopt a softer stand. President Putin too has gone to the extent of publicly declaring that he and his Ukrainian colleague have similar approaches towards a permanent ceasefire in the east of Ukraine. However, the fundamental difference between Russian and Ukrainian approaches was that while Russia insisted that Kiev has to reach an agreement with the rebel leaders on the peace plan and Moscow can only facilitate those talks, Ukraine gave the impre-ssion that it has agreed to sign the peace plan with Moscow. While the US and Ukraine make allout efforts to make Moscow a party to
the military conflict, Russia insists that the fight is between Kiev and the anti-government forces in the east, and hence they have to be involved in negotiations and conclude the peace plan.
President Putin’s peace plan stipulated seven steps that included halting offensive operations by all sides of the conflict, withdrawal of the Ukrainian forces to a distance that would rule out shelling of settlements by the artillery, banning of air strikes, international control over observation of ceasefire conditions, full exchange of prisoners of war and hostages, creation of humanitarian corridors for peaceful mobility of people and supply of humanitarian aid, and despatching of brigades for reconstructing of infrastructure. It needs to be stressed that President Putin’s peace plan was a recommen-dation to his Ukrainian colleague about the conditions on which he has to reach agreement with the leaders of the self-proclaimed republics of Donetsk and Lugansk. There were a lot of confusing and contradicting reports about the position of leaders of the rebellious regions. While some reports said that anti-government forces have agreed for having wide autonomy within Ukraine, other reports suggested that rebel leaders ruled out the possibility of their republics being part of Ukraine.
Finally, the contact group—consisting of former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma representing Kiev, Russian ambassador to Ukraine Mikhail Zurabov, OSCE representative Haidi Talyavini and Prime Ministers of the self- proclaimed republics of Donetsk and Lugansk Alexander Zakharchenko and Igor Plotinsky respectively, signed the much-awaited ceasefire plan—that includes 14 points—at Minsk. Officially, the ceasefire period was announced to begin from 6pm local time on September 5. However, reports coming from Donbas and Lugansk since then suggest that complete ceasefire is a far cry, though the intensity of shelling has reduced significantly and there is a tense calm in the regions.
According to observers, Kiev, like in the past, would most likely use the ceasefire period for regrouping, rearming and remobilising and accumulation of forces. Even if the Ukrainian Army sincerely observes the ceasefire, the private semi-fascist armies, financed by the Ukrainian oligarchs not controlled by the government, would hardly respect the agreement signed in Minsk. They believe Kiev has been forced to sign the ceasefire plan in the backdrop of its humi-liating defeat at the hands of the anti-government forces and in the absence of substantial Western assistance. Rebel forces are likely to abide by the ceasefire agreement as they are an organised force without any internal conflict and waiting for establishing the legal status of their territory.
President Putin and President Poroshenko, in their telephonic conversation on September 6, agreed that the ceasefire in the east of Ukraine was generally holding but said that further steps are required to make it more durable. Howeve, the ceasefire has to be followed and backed by substantive talks for resolving the conflict, which will be an uphill task as Kiev so far talks only about decentralisation of power, and not about a federation, while the rebel forces demand that the talks have to be only about their independence from Kiev.
Prof Arun Mohanty is the Chairperson, Centre for Russian and Central Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and the Director, Eurasian Foundation.