On January 1, something like 20,000 people marched by torchlight through the center of Kiev to celebrate the 105th anniversary of the birth of the Ukrainian nationalist leader Stepan Bandera. Some of the older participants even wore their old uniforms from the Ukrainian National Army.
In Western Ukraine, Bandera is regarded as the founder of the nation, memories of his assassination by the KGB stiffening the understandably anti-Russian sentiments in these marches of Eastern Europe. As a story, Ukrainian nationalism is very old, even though there are several different and indeed competing versions. One of the country’s modern oligarchs likes being called Mazepa, after Ukrainian Hetman Ivan Mazepa, who was driven into exile after the battle of Poltava in 1709.
There was a brief and confused independent Ukrainian government between 1917 and 1922. But this is little remembered outside Wikipedia.
It’s impossible now to separate the founder and the foundation myth of Ukraine from the terrible years of 1939-45, when Bandera signed a Faustian bargain with Nazi Germany. Bandera paid for his conjuring with two years in a concentration camp. But he was let out in 1944 and renewed his pact with a collapsing Third Reich. Western Ukrainian nationalism and fascism had been fused.
This has structural political consequences today, but it also produces unfortunate presentational problems when many Ukrainian politicians are trying hard to move the country as a whole away from the embrace of Moscow and into the arms of the European Union.
Twenty years ago, the Saisonstaat of Yugoslavia broke up, and we cynical journalists joked that the country produced more history than could be consumed locally. Now, in the still-troubled marches of Eastern Europe, history and geography cannot be disentangled, and the forensic search for victim status is as toxic as Chernobyl. The nationalist-heavy brigade claim that ten million, or perhaps seven, died in the Soviet-made famine of 1932-33. What is acknowledged as mass murder by the Russian speakers of the east—Russians, of course, died in large numbers in Stalin’s collectivization—is now presented as the Russian genocide of Ukrainians. The Western Ukrainian nationalists will not rest until that genocide charge is made to stick in all schoolbooks used in the east.
In July 2013, a retired French schoolteacher named Louis Monnier was on holiday with a Ukrainian friend. He was asked if he’d like to attend a sort of kermis in the countryside near Lviv. Lviv used to be the Polish city of Lvov. Before that it was the Austro-Hungarian city of Lemberg, a famous center of Jewish culture and learning. At the “country gala,” Professor Monnier found himself surrounded by teenage boys in SS uniform. It was all in play, of course, and the supposed kermis turned out to be a commemoration of the founding of the Ukrainian National Army, actually the renamed 14th, “Halychyna” or “Galizia,” division of the Waffen SS.
This is “the other Ukraine, the one that we don’t hear about.”
In lucky places, the past is another country. Not here.
Ukrainian-nationalist extremists are not all neo-Nazis. Some of them are the real thing. They have a narrative. They have a history, and they want to have a geography. They have a plan. They also have a considerable, though perhaps temporary, advantage: They are not corrupt. This may have made people in the United States take them more seriously than they should. Struggling to find solid ground in the quicksand of greed and incompetence that is Ukraine, Americans found something they thought they could rely on. And it looked better than what anyone else had.
The protests in Maidan started out as a general and even genuine reaction to the paralyzing and hideous illegality that has grown and grown over Ukraine’s independence. That corruption has gone hand in hand with political instability. In the last 23 years Ukraine has seen 19 prime ministers and acting prime ministers come and go, sometimes going to jail afterward.
In the last few years with “Fatherland Party” opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko in jail and Vitali Klitschko of the United Ukraine Party struggling to make headway, the nationalists slowly made progress out of the shadows.
Then, suddenly, they surged forward. A few months ago, hardly anyone, even in Ukraine, had heard of Dmytro Yarosh, head of Pravy Sektor (Right Sector), an extreme nationalist movement. During the demonstrations, Mr. Yarosh sat in the middle of Maidan Square, in a white ski suit, surrounded by aides, trying his hardest to be noticed, even though many Western TV crews managed not to notice him.
Now Mr. Yarosh is deputy secretary of Ukraine’s national Security and Defense Council (SDC) and says he wants to be president. In mid-March, the acting prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, tried to get parliament to approve a bill making Pravy Sektor a military organization in its own right, like the Brownshirts. Eventually, after surprising resistance and resignations, he succeeded, and now PS is the new national guard. It is suggested that the new financial aid promised by the United States will go not to the Ukrainian army but to Right Sector.
Both the torchlit New Year’s parade in Kiev and the 14th SS commemoration near Lviv were organized by Svoboda, the mainstream Western Ukrainian nationalist movement. This is the electoral front of the extreme right. Svoboda is an offshoot of the Social-National Party of the Ukraine, founded by Oleh Tyahnybok and Andriy Parubiy.
A majority of the estimated 50,000 people demonstrating in relays over recent months in Maidan Square were from Western Ukraine, and the cutting edge of those attacking the interior-ministry troops or riot police in February came from the radical nationalist right. To give an idea of the diversity, one small group was headed by former Israeli Defense Force veterans, led by an ex-special-forces commander (nom de guerre Delta) from the Givati Division. But even “Delta,” admirably ahistorical, admitted he “took his orders from Svoboda.”
By the New Year, the demonstrations were tightly organized by the far right. Anyone trying to come into or out of the square was checked by Parubiy, who, as “co-ordinator of the volunteer security corps,” operated from the large buildings on the fringe of the square. Parubiy is now Mr. Yarosh’s boss, as secretary of the SDC.
Pro-European Union, and many anti-NATO, democratic liberals were undoubtedly present in Maidan Square, but their presence was neither decisive nor influential. Germany had been pinning her hopes on Vitali Klitschko, the former international heavyweight boxer, who lived in Germany. He is too wealthy to need to steal.
But things have moved on. Mr. Klitschko has taken a step back. The rump of the Rada—some MPs from the previously governing Party of the Regions have switched sides, but most have been intimidated into staying away—is passing repressive measures such as closing media outlets and trying to ban Russian as an official language, about which even the OSCE has complained.
The post-Yanukovych government has strange absences, including Mr. Klitschko and many of the original pro-democracy protestors, many of whom have voiced concern about the way things are going. What is clear is that the extreme right has a grip on security and prosecution. The Rada has now made demonstrating against the government illegal.
A recent Guardian article dismissed the remaining protestors as “old men and spotty youths,” while naively singing the praises of democracy’s new dawn. This sort of partisan rhetoric got the Western press into real trouble in Egypt and is likely to do so again.
But what Ukraine is facing now is partition, as cultural and political divisions harden fast. Sponsors of both sides are acting as though they expect actual fighting. The usual rule of a successful coup de main is that you use the thugs to get you into power, then you quickly dispose of them. You don’t give them the right to carry weapons.
In Kiev, the encouragement of the hard-line gunmen of Right Sector means that the regime thinks it is going to need street fighters elsewhere. They hope that Moscow, alarmed at its own boldness, will allow them to dismantle the opposition in the cities of Eastern Ukraine by force and strong policing. The east will not be allowed to secede; it will not even be allowed to express itself. The stakes are too high. There will be no federal compromise in Ukraine. The equal and opposite danger is that Moscow is even now training its own Ukrainian militia to deal with the national guard.
The United States plainly saw this crisis coming. We have the pictures of U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and the U.S. ambassador to Kiev walking together in Maidan Square, and we have their secretly recorded telephone calls planning the replacement government.
The Russian Federation also saw this crisis coming: The minimalist occupation of the Crimea was a very smooth operation.
It was entirely clear last year that the Yanukovych regime was running out of steam and had long ago run out of hard currency to pay foreign debts. The Kremlin had already decided Yanukovych had had it and was more than content to let him lose the elections next year. No sooner had Mr. Yanukovych been chased out of Kiev than Mr. Putin’s spokesman announced that the Kremlin would not take his call.
It does not look, though, as if the Kremlin had an alternative in mind.
It may be that Moscow would have been perfectly happy to see if Mr. Klitschko could take over. Certainly, relations between Mrs. Merkel and Mr. Putin have improved, assisted no doubt by his German and her Russian. But there has been no sign of a deal, despite the surprising release last year of jailed oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
And Moscow’s apparent indifference is odd. Moscow has always taken a greater interest in Ukraine. They tolerated regime change in 2004 and found an effective incremental response. Indeed, Mr. Putin even helped Mrs. Tymoshenko, in the period when Moscow decided to back her, deal a deadly blow to rival gas magnate and Yanukovych stalwart Dmytro Firtash in 2009.
This time, though, Moscow does not seem to have had a Plan B and, on the surface, appeared to be sitting back and waiting for nature to take its course with Yanukovych.
There seem to be three possibilities.
One, favored by hard-liners in Washington, is that Mr. Putin always intended to partition Ukraine, and letting her fall to pieces first was what he wanted.
The second is that nothing so dramatic had actually been decided in Moscow, and that Mr. Putin thought that he was merely dealing with Round Two of the “Orange Revolution,” the more so as “EuroMaidan 2013” began with very much the same lineup.
The third is that Mr. Putin’s uncertain handling of Kiev indicates that he had not gathered sufficient support for a policy. That policy now appears to be the annexation of the Crimea and maybe more—or maybe not. Mr. Putin may have the top job in the Kremlin, but he has to gather consensus, in the military and beyond. On the surface, it doesn’t look as though he had it even on February 22.
Moscow may have thought that other powers respected her “legitimate interest” in Ukraine, a very close neighbor and a Slavic province of the Russian and Soviet empires. But there’s little indication that other powers really want to treat Ukraine any differently from how they treated Yugoslavia. If Germany is less militant, the United States and Poland look much more so. (Even support from old ally India looked like the weakest endorsement that Delhi felt it could get away with.)
All this doubtless gave encouragement to hard-liners like Mrs. Nuland, whose famous leaked expletive “F-ck the E.U.” showed us that Washington felt confident it did not need, or could frogmarch, allies on this one. We’ve come a long way from the famous “Chicken Kiev” speech in which President George H.W. Bush reminded Ukraine that independence did not equal freedom.
In February 2008, after the West cooked up Kosovo’s independence, Moscow warned very clearly that it would not accept that only the United States could break the rules. In April 2008 the Europeans refused President Bush’s proposal to fast-track Ukraine and Georgia for NATO membership.
Germany and others demanded only postponement, however, and Mr. Putin was not able to get it withdrawn. He has been slow over the intervening six years to draw his lines in the Ukrainian sand. That he intended to draw red lines is evident, but he did not know where.
Perhaps he prefers fast counterplay. When Georgia, as a neocon cat’s-paw, attacked South Ossetia—shooting at Russian soldiers and shelling the main town—Russia counterattacked, invaded Georgia, and then, in a rapid policy reversal, recognized South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent.
The Crimean subplot resembles that Putin gambit of 2008: fast and locally conclusive. But Putin must know well that it is no substitute for a Russian policy for Ukraine. Today, Senator McCain’s faction is back in the saddle with the theory that Putin is a straw man, a pushover asking to be pushed.
As accusations of illegality fly back and forth, Russia compares Crimea with Kosovo and has been answered only with a weak and foolish riposte that Kosovo was different “because it took a long time.” As with all international legal matters, it is still the case that it doesn’t matter what the laws are, but who your friends are.
With foreign allies slinking away, it also appears that Mr. Putin has fewer friends in Moscow than he really needs. He is still shutting down media outlets—a sure sign of insecurity.
In early March the editor of lenta.ru, a very popular and somewhat independent online news service, was fired for giving the proverbial “oxygen of publicity” to Dmytro Yarosh, while other online services were blocked. (Lenta.ru is owned by Russian oligarch Alexander Mamut, who owns Waterstones.)
Thirty-four other journalists left lenta.ru in protest.
Part of this may just be a heavy hand. But it’s clear that Mr. Putin is still unsure how the Russian population and his political allies will react to direct intervention in Ukraine—and to the Western economic retaliation that was bound to follow. Crimea is massively pro-Russia, never really being a part of Ukraine after Khrushchev’s whimsical decision to splice it on 60 years ago, and a safe bet for playing the patriotic card. The takeover of Crimea, providing ambitious members of the Duma with wonderful photo opportunities, has won the parliament over.
The military will be harder, as they will have to take the risks if push comes to shove. That’s probably why Mr. Putin hasn’t used them.
The men in “uniforms without insignia,” as goggle-eyed Western journalists described them, were instantly recognizable from their thumbprint equipment as Spetsnaz, Russian special forces—political soldiers in Russia, as they are everywhere else.
Mr. Putin knows from experience that Ukrainian allies are not to be relied on. For a start, he must be concerned that any Russian initiative for secession will have insufficient support in the east and south, even in cities like Donetsk and Kharkiv, whose largely Russian-origin populations despise the Maidan protestors. Older people feel a loyalty to Moscow, but the young want European consumer culture, however illusory that may prove.
In any case, Putin’s Plan A did not work. Mr. Yanukovych did precisely what Mr. Putin told him not to do and fled, leaving chaos behind. Was he meant to die at his desk like Salvador Allende, as the American-backed mob broke into his office? The Kiev regime is busy crushing pro-Russian opponents, putting their own oligarchs in charge, and using a light touch with nationalist gunmen.
And it’s oligarchs that Mr. Putin is short of. He’s lost the battle here, and it may in the end prove decisive. Ukraine does oligarchs rather better than most countries, and certainly better than Russia today. There aren’t very many of them, and they are preposterously wealthy. In previous crises, oligarchs stayed with their patrons, but not this time.
Mr. Yanukovych has for many years been supported by the richest man in Ukraine, Rinat Akhmetov. As a result, Mr. Akhmetov was clearly going to get richer in 2014. His numerous companies had won 31 percent of all state contracts for the year.
But as soon as the interim government was installed, all Ukraine’s oligarchs, Mr. Akhmetov among them, issued statements supporting the Kiev regime. Indeed, “Oligarch-TV” changed sides a few hours before Yanukovych fled. That’s cause and effect. More to the point, the dozens of MPs in the Rada who answer directly to Mr. Yanukovych’s oligarch friends swapped sides in the wake of the February 21 agreement. It seems very likely that the oligarchs changed sides not because they preferred the Kiev regime, but because threats had been made.
Washington had been threatening openly the property, interests, and freedom of Ukrainian oligarchs if lethal force were used against the EuroMaidan demonstrations. And we have the evidence of Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet, who, when asked by E.U. Foreign Affairs Commissioner Baroness Ashton what the political atmosphere was like in the parliament, replied that there had been intimidation as a result of “uninvited visitors in the night.” It is possible that Party of the Regions MPs were not the only ones who had received a nocturnal visit.
Last year he bought a TV station for Mr. Yanukovych; this year, Dmytro Firtash made particular public witness of his conversion when, as chairman of the Federation of Employers of Ukraine, he appealed to his Russian counterparts to help “avoid war.”
Yet behind the scenes, Mr. Firtash seemed to be hedging his bets, trying to persuade Moscow to accept the coup d’etat in Kiev on the grounds that the alternatives are worse. Certainly, Mr. Firtash and other oligarchs who prospered under the old dispensation seem to have understood that the putrid connection between business and politics in Ukraine cannot continue. Oligarchs are poorly placed to make such arguments, but the Firtash initiative is interesting because it was on the face of it unlikely, the more so because Mr. Firtash had been badly bruised by Mr. Putin when his gas-import business was broken by Yulia Tymoshenko and her gas-import clan.
It’s not clear to whom Mr. Firtash had been talking, but less than two weeks after the government changed in Kiev, Mr. Firtash was arrested on an old but hitherto secret FBI warrant for involvement in a complicated Indian investment scheme almost ten years ago.
Mr. Firtash’s staff say the arrest in Vienna is a mistake. This is unlikely. It may be a feint. Even if it is, the FBI’s message is clear: When you come over, you come over.
“Friendly” oligarchs, on the other hand, are doing well. In control of the rump of the Rada, the regime in Kiev appointed Ihor Kolomoyskyi as governor of Dnepropetrovsk, while Serhiy Taruta has been given Donetsk. Other oligarchs have cabinet posts.
Lacking useful oligarchs, Mr. Putin’s options must be few. Russia’s political machinery is, in any circumstances, quite hard to handle. Some things went into action very impressively. The Night Wolves biker gang and officials from the Interior Ministry arrived very promptly in Simferopol and Sevastopol, the latter carrying cases of new Russian passports, which they issued to eager Ukrainian citizens.
The passports were theater. Ukraine’s economic crisis, on the other hand, is painfully real, and has only been made worse by the change of regime. One of the reasons Mr. Putin may have underestimated Washington’s determination to interfere in Kiev is that, ever since independence in 1991, Ukraine’s debts to Russia have been routinely left unpaid. (When the Ukrainians used to steal Russian gas in transit to Central Europe, Washington denounced Russian requests for payment as bullying.) Gazprom, the mighty Russian gas monopoly, has just cheekily sent the last “red bill” to Brussels, asking for $1.5 billion. Kiev actually owes a great deal more, perhaps $16 billion.
Russia has been giving Ukraine, and many of her oligarchs, a serious discount off the gas price, fees for transporting gas to other customers beyond Ukraine, cheap loans, grants, special tariffs for Ukraine’s exports, and so on—down to perhaps $600 million per year for the lease of Russia’s Crimean bases.
The penalty for acquiring Ukraine will be paying for her. In March, the new Kiev regime lost no time in demanding €35 billion from the West. It was desperate enough to ask Moscow for the $15 billion it had promised the Yanukovych regime last December. That met with a predictable silence. And there is the matter of the unpaid gas bill.
Curiously, March 1 was the day when Gazprom’s cut-price deal with Ukraine ran out; 2014 is also the year when the South Stream Pipeline is set to open, meaning that Moscow will be able to cut off the gas to Ukraine without interrupting supply elsewhere.
Ukraine’s current poverty, however, may also conceal future wealth, creating hidden motivations for both internal and external actors.
Gas exploration is under way both in Western Ukraine and beneath the bed of the Black Sea. A better-managed government, less-flagrant corruption, and better harvests might make Ukraine less of an economic basket case. One of the conditions in the European Union’s new agreement with Kiev is the free sale to foreigners of Ukraine’s unusually fertile agricultural land.
Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski, national-security advisor in the Carter era, was always hard and realistic on Russia. In recent interviews, he urged Ukraine to “become another Finland.” This is surely disingenuous.
Dr. Brzezinski wrote more revealingly ten years ago that, “without Ukraine, Russia is not an Eurasian Empire,” and noted that Ukraine’s grain-growing capacity could make her a major prize in a world short of natural resources. Ukraine produces about 50 million tons of wheat every year and, by some reckonings, is already the world’s second-largest exporter of cereals.
The hard-liners in Washington would certainly wish Russia to be reduced in influence, power, and wealth. So, well worth a gamble, perhaps?
The short-term costs may be great, but there are material and—more importantly—serious strategic and political profits to come.
[image Copyright 2014 Demotix, all rights reserved]
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