Fact-finding update from Ukraine—On the surface, the Ukraine crisis is being decided on the country’s eastern battlefields. Yet the essence lies far deeper, behind the unfolding post-revolutionary discourses trying to frame the new Ukrainian political scenery.
The two sides in the conflict, Russia and Ukraine, have been appealing to the West, trying to find terms that are understandable to Western sensibilities.
In its communication with the West, the Ukrainian government has been utilizing two major concepts—hybrid warfare and terrorism. The idea of hybrid war was developed and long-used used by U.S. military analysts. Kyiv thinks it is applicable to the Russia’s current approach of “indirect” involvement (or war by proxy) in military operations in eastern Ukraine.
While meeting with top Ukrainian authorities during a fact-finding mission organized by the Barcelona-based think tank CIDOB (May 14-17), we were told that intercepted records have proven close coordination between “rebels” and their Russian patrons (they said these documents were handed to Western embassies).
Government officials say there are up to 100 Russian specialists (“volunteers”) that have direct/indirect relations with the pro-Russian (or even just Russian) special services in the city of Slovyansk.
The officials describe Russia's strategy as the destabilization of Ukraine's south-east up to Odessa, and then to Transnistria, which the Russians quite publicly have presented as the “liberation” of these areas from Kyiv’s rule.
Perhaps, Moscow expected celebratory flowers and overwhelming loyalty in these provinces. However, reality revealed that pro-Russian groups do not constitute more than one-third of the population in these areas, even in the regions directly bordering Russia.
In Lugansk, for example, local people built checkpoints to prevent separatists from expanding and localizing more units.
Local supporters of keeping Ukraine unified are mostly Facebook-organized, which bears fruit: earlier this week 10,000 people protested against separatism in Donetsk despite the threat of retaliation.
A colleague from Kharkiv mentioned that though it is a Russian-speaking city, its urban landscape is currently full of Ukrainian symbols.
An NGO employee from Dnepropetrovsk assured us that there are no grounds for a Russian identity in this city, and that the local elite is mostly interested in blackmailing Kyiv, and that other local businessmen are simply afraid of Russian oligarchs. He said that those who stage pro-Russian meetings are paid 400-700 Hryvnas ($30-60) but that these events have fallen off sharply, from 400 to 70 in a matter of weeks.
Representatives of Ukraine's Jewish community have been among the strongest opponents of Moscow's role in their country. One Jewish community leader said, “We did say we need protection. Indeed, we do feel a threat. But it comes not from Kyiv. It originates from Russia.” One of his colleagues added with indignation, “The aggressors paid bandits who encroached on our homes, and then attempt to teach us how to live.” Another said, “We want to live in a normal Western country.”
Defending Ukraine from creeping external aggression is perceived by Ukrainian Jews as a “well-thought European choice.” And many of them have demonstrated a European approach to mitigating political rifts. The Jewish community in Dnepropetrovsk, for example, held meetings with the Right Sector and Svoboda, and they regularly communicate with them.
All officials we met in Kyiv are certain that it is those who either represent or are oriented toward Russia who destroy any peace efforts in the rebellious cities. One of our interlocutors in Kyiv said that these people are on a daily basis instructed to delay negotiations with Kyiv and block all possible agreements. And they were promised that help would ultimately come.
But what if it won't? The very concept of hybrid war leaves Russia the option of gradually disengaging from and/or reducing support for rebel groupings.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has recently mentioned that the anti-Kyiv separatists should not be automatically equated with pro-Russian forces—a statement that disappoints any rioters who keep expecting “little green men” to directly protect them.
There have also been statements from Moscow that a repetition of the "Crimean scenario" in other Ukrainian regions is out of the question. And Russia said it is pulling troops away from the Ukrainian border—something that can further disillusion and demoralize the fighters against the central government.
This brings us to the second previously-mentioned narrative concept—the use of the word “terrorists” by Kyiv when naming the rebels (the use of another term, “fascists,” by both sides can be parsed another day). The logic is quite clear: terrorists, in the eyes of Kyiv, are those who resort to physical force, coercion, and intimidation in order to split Ukraine from the inside.
Those who call armed separatists terrorists might be trying to employ a legal justification for soldiers to counter them—but it is also handy for reaching Western audiences that generally sympathize with the anti-terrorist narrative and terror victims.
Other narrative reference points such as the “undemocratic” nature of the regime in Russia and Putin's “nostalgic imperialism” appeal to the notion that it is the Kremlin that has to be tackled to prevent further hostilities.
Informal discussions with European political scientists made clear that the Ukrainian government still has a long way to go in conquering the “hearts and minds” of international analysts and foreign policy professionals. This is why Ukrainian officials are doing their best to place the current Ukrainian challenges in a global context. They’ve recycled the idea of “a conflict between civilizations” and added to it the terrorist component, all to say that what is going on in eastern Ukraine is not local, but global.
Yet, as we know, countering terrorism requires military boots on the ground. As a top-level military officer in Kyiv told us, “it was our decision not to use weapons in Crimea, but the result was the loss of this territory.”
The new authorities inherited an Ukrainian army in disarray. Moreover, fighting against Russia was never part of the Ukrainian military's mission. They never trained for that task.
To date, the Ukrainian Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Defense has formed eight new battalions and a number of territorial self-defense squads, all fully controlled by the state. Forty-thousand volunteers have been recruited into the National Guard and 20,000 reservists have been mobilized—all spurred by the state’s “anti-terrorist” operations.
As far as Russia is concerned, it has in its rhetorical arsenal a trigger-word familiar to many in the West, “federalism.” To a large extent, Moscow's demand for federalization in Ukraine is a smart move, since neither the EU nor the United States, both of which are based on federalist principles, may seriously argue against decentralization and regionalization of the unitary Ukrainian state.
Of course, the response to this is, “Look who’s talking!” In spite of the fact that it is officially a federation, Russia under Putin is a perfect example of a hyper-centralized state with minimal powers for local authorities. Yet it is exactly because of this that Putin's request for federalization in Ukraine can only be supported to a point, until it becomes projected onto Russia itself—playing with guns and words may backfire. Implementing in Russia what the Kremlin seeks from Ukraine would trigger a drastic deterioration of Putin's power base.