Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues

The unrest in Ukraine is not a brewing civil war, but the second phase of Russia’s invasion.

(Efrem Lukatsky/AP Photo) Pro-Russian men throw stones during the mass storming of a police station in Horlivka, eastern Ukraine, Monday, April 14, 2014. Ukraine's acting President Oleksandr Turchynov on Monday called for the deployment of United Nations peacekeeping troops in the east of the country, where pro-Russian insurgents have occupied buildings in nearly 10 cities.

(Efrem Lukatsky/AP Photo) Pro-Russian men throw stones during the mass storming of a police station in Horlivka, eastern Ukraine, Monday, April 14, 2014. Ukraine’s acting President Oleksandr Turchynov on Monday called for the deployment of United Nations peacekeeping troops in the east of the country, where pro-Russian insurgents have occupied buildings in nearly 10 cities.

Russia’s warning that Ukraine hovers on the brink of civil war is a lot like an arsonist’s observation that faulty wiring in a home he’s attacking may lead to fire.

Ukraine does face war; it is arguably in the midst of one already. But this is not— at least not primarily—a civil conflict. Russia invaded the Ukrainian republic of Crimea (and administrative district of Sevastopol) in late February. The second phase of its invasion began this month with coordinated assaults by unidentified men on regional government buildings and police stations across the east.

The move may have some local support but it is not a grassroots uprising. In an age when almost everyone has a cellphone that can record video, the evidence is all over the Internet: the assault troops wear identical uniforms and move with skill and co-operation. They have targeted cities on key transportation routes, should an overt invasion from Russia be necessary. And, in a comic turn, supposedly local insurrectionists in Kharkiv reportedly stormed the opera house, thinking it was the mayor’s office.

The Kremlin’s propaganda arm is also in full swing. Three different television stations in Russia and Russian-occupied Crimea have aired exclusive interviews with men whose stories support the official Russian interpretation that what is taking place is a grassroots uprising against Western-organized neo-Nazis who, in a coup, took power in Kyiv. The interviews are with a German spy who hired 50 European mercenaries to suppress pro-Russian demonstrators in the eastern city of Nikolayev, a peaceful protester who was attacked and shot by neo-Nazis whom the Ukrainian police had brought to Nikolayev, and a surgeon who was helping wounded demonstrators in Nikolayev when those ubiquitous neo-Nazis shot up a makeshift emergency facility and wounded him.

It’s gripping stuff. The problem for Russia is that in their news pantomime the same actor plays the spy, the surgeon, and the bystander. The stories are a clumsy fabrication. But they likely have the desired affect on pro-Russian Ukrainians already pre-disposed to believe the worse about their countrymen who supported the revolution that toppled the pro-Russian Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, in February.

Indeed, among the most disturbing videos to emerge from Ukraine in recent days is one that shows pro-Russian civilians abusing supposed supporters of the new government in Kyiv. The victims, bloody and barely conscious, are dumped like sacks of meat on the steps of a subway entrance while dozens of onlookers film and insult them. A man with a club strikes one. A middle-aged woman with bleached blond hair kicks another.

Before masses of civilians can treat their fellows this badly, they generally have to believe that the objects of their ire are worse than animals. In eastern Ukraine, it seems that many really do think—despite the absence of any evidence— that they are under attack by fascists. The blood of those beaten in the subway lies as much on the hands of the so-called journalists who have propagated this fiction as it does on the thugs with clubs.

Exactly what Russia is trying to accomplish is unclear. So far what is happening in eastern Ukraine is an almost exact replica of the early days of the Russian invasion of Crimea. But not all invasions are preludes to occupation. Moscow may want to destabilize Ukraine to prevent it from ever joining NATO or the European Union, and to punish it for its anti-Yanukovych revolution. It may wish to force Ukraine to radically devolve power to its regions. Or it may in fact be preparing to occupy the east of the country. The truth is that no one really knows. Russia’s annexation of Crimea—explicitly breaking a treaty it signed only 20 years ago—has radically changed perceptions of what Moscow is willing to do.

On Feb. 26, I was outside the regional parliament in Simferopol, the capital of Crimea. This was hours before Russia’s invasion got under way, and the parliament was still unoccupied. Duelling rallies had been held that afternoon between pro-Russians and pro-Ukrainian Tatars—Turkic Muslims who had been horrendously mistreated by the Soviet Union and were therefore uniformly opposed to any sort of union with Moscow.

After the Tatars left, Sergey Aksynov, deputy of the parliament, came out and addressed the pro-Russian crowd. There was a lot of shouting going on, and my translator had a hard time sorting out what everyone was saying. But from what he could make out, and from what I recall, Aksynov was trying to calm down the more heated members of the crowd and spoke of keeping Ukraine together.

That night gunmen stormed the parliament, and the following day MPs, surrounded by men with weapons, “elected” Aksynov prime minister. Crimea was soon officially annexed by Russia, and now Aksynov publicly offers Russian President Vladimir Putin his gushing thanks for reuniting Crimea with Russia.

This incident may reveal little more than Aksynov’s opportunism. But I think it also shows how quickly declared loyalties can shift depending on who appears to be most powerful. In much of eastern Ukraine today, those wielding the most power are not loyal to Kyiv.

Crimea offers another obvious but important lesson for what may lie ahead in eastern Ukraine: dictatorship stifles dissent. In Crimea, a little more than half the population is ethnically Russian—not all of whom would rather live in Russia. And yet if we are to believe the referendum results, and judge public mood by the kinds of flags waved at rallies, Russia’s annexation is enthusiastically endorsed by almost everyone who lives there. Of course this is not the case. But Crimea has now joined the Russian dictatorship, and dissent is dangerous. So people stay silent.

In most of eastern Ukraine, the percentage of the population that is ethnically Russian is even lower. A poll in March found that more than half of respondents in eastern Ukraine wanted the country to have equally close ties to Moscow and the West; three quarters wanted Russian troops in Crimea to return to their bases (this was before the region was formally annexed); and only 24 per cent thought that Russian actions in Crimea were justified. This isn’t a region where most people want to join Russia. But when they’re menaced by gun-toting men and lynch mobs, it’s hard to blame them for not saying so out loud.

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Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues

  1. While Crimea was definitely an invasion, I haven’t seen any credible expert argue that a legitimate referendum (clear question, no tanks) would not have achieved the same result.

    Unfortunately, it appears the same is true for the eastern portion of the country. Stalin was a horrible genius, but he laid the groundwork for Crimea and Eastern Ukraine many years ago. At this point the best the west could do is to impose a fair referendum, a new border and rules for immigrants to re-settle on both sides.

    While this could be seen (and would be seen) as rewarding Putin’s bad behaviour, it would also lead to a stable (albeit smaller) Ukraine dominated by Ukrainians. Once the situation is stable, the west could then punish Putin economically by developing alternative energy sources for Europe and by ensuring that the new Ukraine becomes a highly successful democracy.

  2. Crimea has been returned to Russia where it belongs, NATO has gotten it’s fingers rapped sharply for trying to surround Russia and has had to retreat…. and the west is left with only a bullhorn and a bunch of empty threats.

    Canada has a lot in common with Russia, and we could be good friends able to deal peaceably with world events, but it seems we have Dr Strangelove in the PMO.

    • This warmongering and sabre rattling with absolutely nothing to back it up is really hilarious and worthy of the wildest style of satire when you think about it.

      • My favorite is their exclusion from the G7….which has been dead for years anyway….and that they have refused to call the G8 all along. I’ll bet THAT upset Putin eh? Not.

    • The poor relations between Canada and Russia is almost entirely due to Russia’s backslide into totalitarian dictatorship and militaristic aggression. I have no idea how you believe Canada could be friends with Putin’s Russia.

      • The US attacks or helps attacks in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria etc and in a dozen other countries…..but you accuse RUSSIA of dictatorship and aggression?? That’s politics for the home crowd, not reason.

        Canada is the second largest country in the world. Russia is the largest. Together we dominate the northern hemisphere. We both have oil, gas and other resources. We’re both cold and snowy. We both have the survivor mentality born of that geography.

        Russia is on our OTHER border….or as Putin said to our GG….we’re the people across the lake.

        We have similar economies, similar levels of technology….how could we NOT be friends with them?

      • Give that Chrystia Freeland, the star MP of the Liberal Party is a Ukraine-Canadian who owns an apartment on the square in Kyiv where the deadly riots took place, it is unlikely that Justin Trudeau would be friendly with Putin. Canada is home to more Ukranian people than any place outside of Ukraine or Russia….1.2 million Ukranian-Canadians.

        • Freeland is one of many Libs. That’s not how you determine Canada’s foreign policy.

          Ignatieff speaks Russian. Cotler and Grey are Jewish. We have an astronaut as an MP

          What difference does it make what country you emmigrated from?

          Chinese is now our third largest language.

          We are a long way from the Ukranian farmers of yore.

          • Freeland didn’t emigrate from Ukraine. She was born in Canada. However, she has a vested interest in the country. She studied there. She owns property there and has family there. You really believe that having someone on the inside track doesn’t inform foreign policy? Freeland isn’t just one of many Lib MP’s like you claim. She was hand-picked by JT for her knowledge, intelligence and special skill set. All of the Canadian parliament voted to take the same stance against Putin. That included the Libs. in case you missed the news reports.

        • Is it because Chrystia Freeland saw Putin throwing Molotov`s cocktails at Ukrainian riot police officers? Or was it Putin with sniper rifles, shooting at both sides of the conflict to escalate it? Then I understand, why she wouldn`t want Justin Trudeau to be friends with Putin:)

      • Well, we have to get along, since we share a long undefended border somewhere in the arctic.

        • I agree. Lots of ways to get along…and we need to, over the Arctic, the ISS dozens of things.

  3. “But when they’re menaced by gun-toting men and lynch mobs, it’s hard to blame them for not saying so out loud.”

    Firstly the author had to learn more about interactions between grass-root level russians and ukrainians. The Crimea is the most popular resort of russians ever. Millions of russians visit Crimea every season. This year there will be even more people. The same flash of tourists from Russia happened in Ossetia 2008. Does everybody believe that the Moscow’s dictatorship really can frighten all those local people of telling the truth to the tourists? May be someone believe that those millions of Russians cannot tell the truth to other people? So who is zombying whom?
    Please visit the link to find out how Crimean citizens were “frightened” by Russian propaganda http://tutuskania.livejournal.com/1583119.html.

  4. Reply to ‘Hmmm Interesting’ since this comment section is so screwed up, I can’t reply directly. Nothing on here has been fixed.

    What is all this anti-Soviet stuff? There are less than 150,000 people in Canada who speak Ukranian. There are half a million Russians here.

    Lots of former Irish in Parliament too but they didn’t run to Ireland to help the IRA. And I doubt they speak Gaelic.

    We are all Canadian…..we do not remain involved with old arguments in the old country.

    And we’ve changed centuries.

    Time to move on don’t you think?

    • Criticizing George W. Bush’s foreign policy did not make one anti-American and being honest about Putin’s ambitions doesn’t make one anti-Russian. The Russian people and Canadian-Russians believe Putin that Ukraine has been taken over by neo-nazi’s who are going to infiltrate Russia next.

      • These Russian-Canadians refuse to listen to anything western journalists have to say…even the BBC and the CBC….Susan Ormiston was on the ground in Crimea during the referendum and had some interesting observation about the ballots. No one believes in a free Canadian press…only the Putin press.

  5. If the European, Canadian and US countries are so very concerned, let them send an unarmed UN mission that is concerned with actual peacekeeping instead of imposing western agenda on other countries with violence as it happened in Yugoslavia and everywhere else where the west happened to intervene.

      • Actually very few Canadians are concerned. We have more Chinese than Ukranians.

        This is all political…for the home audiences. Nothing we can do about it anyway. Harper is just on another of his war kicks.

        PS If I am ‘posting too fast’ for this board then you shouldn’t have the Macleans account. Discus never had a problem with it. Do you want to be in the big-time or not?

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