On a sunny mid-February Sunday, Science for Peace President Metta Spencer welcomed activists and concerned citizens to a day exploring the conflict in Ukraine. The program consisted of three moderated panels of knowledgeable experts addressing the past, present and potential future of the conflict. The first panel, on background factors, was moderated by the Toronto Star’s Olivia Ward.
As an academic and frequent visitor to Ukraine, Professor Marta Dyczok’s explanation of the underlying factors lay essentially in Vladimir Putin’s determination to restore his nation to Great Power status. His move to annex Crimea, days after President Yanukovych had fled, was an attempt to block Kyiv’s aspirations to join the European Union and NATO.
Despite numerous reports of external interference by the US or European Union, Professor Dyczok denied the existence of solid evidence to support this allegation. She asserted that Putin fears his own people, despite his overall popularity in opinion polls.
Ukrainians remain divided: those desiring EU membership, against those—largely from the Eastern sector—favoring continued links with Russia. There is also a prevailing distrust among many Crimeans of the new leadership in Kyiv, hence their desire for autonomy.
Dyczok asked: What led the peaceful protest to turn violent and who triggered this? Evidently, competing narratives, ideology, misinformation and the regime change—following reports of rampant corruption—led street demonstrations to escalate into a nationwide battle. When the new leader Poroshenko took over as President, his opposition to pro-Russian Ukrainians did not go down well. On the other hand, dissenting journalists in Crimea were threatened by separatists and several fled to Kyiv. Regional differences escalated, forcing individuals to choose between loyalty to Ukraine or Russia.
Professor Alexander Likhotal is president of Green Cross International; he also serves as an adviser to Gorbachev. He spoke via Skype from Geneva, noting that in Europe, unlike North America, there is an ominous smell of war. Likhotal sees the present conflict in Ukraine as part of the post-1989 restructuring of the global system, which itself is a continuation of the restructuring following the Second World War. Accordingly, the present conflict is grounded in the longer term of political economic mistakes on the part of both Russia and the West over the past twenty years. Professor Likhotal’s own lucid overview of the turmoil in Ukraine appears elsewhere in this issue.
An economist from the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, Professor Leonid Kosals spoke of Russia’s internal situation as explaining Putin’s role in Ukraine.
He portrayed Russia as in a deep systemic crisis rooted in its ongoing, decades-long transformation from the Soviet political economy. The massive consolidation of state and newer private enterprises has created an interlinked political economic structure of enormous power. This has led to a crisis of legitimacy, where Putin and his clan have vast power but limited acceptable authority. This has resulted in domestic popular opposition to Putin’s regime by perhaps 20 percent of the population, as found in polls as well as in protests and demonstrations in many cities.
Kosals’s graphs showed recent societal changes in Russia — a drop in living standards, greater control of the media, an economic downturn (as a consequence of sanctions) and Vladimir Putin’s approval/disapproval ratings. Kosals believes these domestic issues gave Putin an opportunity to invade Crimea and distract his own critics. The chances of political and economic reforms being implemented in the near future are uncertain. There remains a danger of more clashes with the West.
The second expert panel was moderated by Metta Spencer. The focus here was on “who has done what and why?” Professor Paul Robinson of the ??University of Ottawa led the speakers, claiming that Ukraine’s present government emerged out of a seizure of power. It cannot claim the legitimacy of being an elected body. It acts without the means and the will to listen to its people. In return, its people sometimes reject its leadership.
Robinson stated categorically that Russia was not involved in the uprisings in the early stages; but has supplied rebels with artillery and ammunition since September 2014, when the Ukrainian Army stepped up their attacks on rebel-held areas of Donbas. In other words, Russia was reacting to events, not leading them. The rebels are a small fraction of Ukraine and say they are called upon to “defend their homes” against their own government. Their numbers often expand and contract in rhythm with Kyiv’s actions. They accept Russian support and, sometimes, advice.
The leader of the rebels, Igor Strelkov, driven by distrust of the Kyiv regime, assembled a militia—90 percent of them Ukrainian citizens—to defend their territory. Their arms were largely seized from Ukrainian Army and Secret Service forces, months before the Russians came to their aid. In fact Strelkov complained that Putin had abandoned them. Russians who volunteered to join the rebels did so as individuals and were not from the Russian Army. Not until mid-July did Russia intervene by shelling targets across the border from their own territory.
Since August 2014, more artillery, ammunition and military advisers from Russia arrived after Strelkov was replaced by a leader more amenable to Moscow’s plans. Russia seems prepared to give rebels just enough assistance to keep Ukraine’s army at bay; Putin’s objective was to pressure Kyiv to reach an accord with the rebels. Russia has no interest in taking Donetsk or Lugansk.
Robinson rejected as false the notion that Poroshenko and his allies are fascists. They are not; however their electoral gains were greatly strengthened by the recruitment of former fascists. The West has consistently applauded the current Ukraine administration, despite its short-circuiting of democratic procedures in displacing Yanukovych. The concerns of people in Donbas were contemptuously ignored. Sending the Ukrainian army east to attack rebel strongholds aggravated the rift and swelled the ranks of the rebels.
In Robinson’s opinion, the Poroshenko government simply denies the destruction and loss of lives caused by his army’s indiscriminate shelling of built-up areas in the war zones. Generals blame the rebels, claiming their purpose is to discredit the army. Robinson considers the West’s attempts to change Russia’s behavior counter-productive. We forget that the Russia of 2010 is no longer what it was in 1990. Ukraine on the other hand could use our help and influence.
The second expert on this panel was Fred Weir, the long-time Moscow correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor. He highlighted the mistakes made by all sides. First, Ukraine was deeply divided within itself. There is a profound split between its eastern and western regions. When Eastern tourists visit the new Russia they are favourably impressed by its improved standard of living, and when Western Ukrainians visit Poland they smile at imagined EU futures.
Second, Russia’s annexation of Crimea was a great mistake, for which it may pay over the decades as the new world order emerges. However, when he spoke with a senior Russian diplomat he has known for several years, the reply was understandable: For fifteen years Russia watched the US and coalition forces invade Iraq, Afghanistan, and Kosovo, to serve their own interests. These were naked geopolitical struggles, where rules of the game were changed when it suited them. Accordingly, Russia feels justified in doing what it feels must be done to protect its interests as well. And the scenario of Russia losing its key naval base to NATO is not that far-fetched when one considers how steadily that organization has encroached eastward in two decades.
Third, Western leaderships’ mistakes include accepting the Maidan coup—the change of Ukraine’s government that bypassed an upcoming scheduled election. Weir asks rhetorically, “Would such be tolerated in the European Union?”
Fourth, Kyiv has mistakenly made war on the rebels in their several eastern strongholds. Polls show profound anti-Kyiv radicalization there. Perhaps a more cautious political approach, e.g. anti-corruption rather than anti-terrorist campaigns, would be wiser.
Borys Wrzesnewskyj has served in the Canadian Parliament and is a frequent visitor to Ukraine where he is supports movements for political independence and democracy. He argued, first, that Russia has long expected the dismemberment of Ukraine and, second, that since 2004 Putin has planned for it. For example, when observing an election a few years ago, Wrzesnewskyj had seen in a line-up of voters several Russians who carried their passports to the polling stations. When he raised this matter with poll officials, they could not explain how Russian military personnel or other foreigners were on the voters’ list.
He also outlined several contingency plans the Russians had made to take back Crimea. To avert an invasion, Wrzesnewskyj called for the use of defensive weaponry. This suggestion was challenged by other panelists, who all preferred a political solution.
Doug Saunders from the Globe and Mail moderated the third panel of speakers tasked with a search for specific ways of stopping the civil war. First to speak was TV journalist Andriy Kulykov by phone from Kyiv. He had just returned from Kharkiv, where two protesters participating in a demonstration were killed by a remote-controlled explosive device. Onlookers believe Russians were behind this.
Kulykov argued that sanctions against Russia are not working, though the drop in oil prices has had quite an impact. He outlined a number of possible futures, suggesting that no military solutions are possible, since neither NATO nor Russia could limit the resulting war. Rather than war, perhaps Ukraine will be divided. One part might develop along European lines; another part along Russian lines. In time, perhaps a future reunion of sorts might occur. Finally, a blue helmet future is possible whereby peacekeepers separate the two parts of Ukraine.
As a peace worker networking with groups in the North Caucasus, Andre Kamenshikov feels that the Ukraine crisis differs from other conflicts: Putin has plenty of support in Russia, but getting approval for an all-out war would be difficult, as Russians bear no grudge towards Ukrainians.
Specifically, the struggle is ultimately not for territory but for hearts and minds concerning Ukraine’s future. He envisions a future in which the present conflict is frozen, fighting stops, and the Eastern and Western territories compete with one another in development, each shaping its own future but each at least sharing some common background and perhaps a future reunion.
Arriving at the conference late, John Feffer, of the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C., humorously explained his tardiness. Four inches of snow had been enough to paralyze the capital and delay his flight. Feffer saw this as refuting any presumption that Washington is omnipotent. To be sure, some US politicians would like to orchestrate the Euromaidan, but America cannot even cope with four inches of snow!
The congressional debate about lethal aid has little to do with Ukraine. The aim is to go after President Obama. Republicans think the world’s only superpower needs to maintain its superiority at any cost, but Obama is reluctant to use force. Leaders fall into two categories: those motivated by ambition and those acting out of insecurity or fear. Obama believes Putin is a mix of both, so he wisely maintains a policy of “containment with a smiley face.”
Feffer echoed his fellow panelists when he mentioned several cases of “frozen conflicts;” such as South and North Korea over the last 60 years. Still, it may take time for both sides of the conflict to see the benefits of freezing it. In the Korean case, it took three years and the loss of lives and property. Feffer believes the warring parties in Ukraine have yet to reach the stage where neither can make further gains. Only then will they be ready to settle. Geopolitics is never fair; minimizing pain and suffering is a more achievable goal.
Although there was no consensus that emerged from the conference, there were some recurrent themes. First, the global political economy is undergoing a major restructuring. As the context of the present Ukraine-Russia conflict, this requires greater attention than merely following the day-to-day media coverage.
Second, both the Ukrainian and Russian leadership are somewhat disconnected from their own populations and suffer significant problems of legitimacy. This makes conflict resolution more complex.
Third, a political solution is more desirable and more likely than a military solution. Here, new thinking like notions of “frozen conflicts” (e.g. Korea) might be a diplomatic “harm-reduction” solution.
Fourth, the Ukraine-Russia conflict is about ideas. Different visions of the future are being contested. It remains to be seen which future vision will obtain.
Both Subir Guin and Edward Silva are members of Peace’s editorial board.
Video of the entire conference is available at scienceforpeace.ca/1357.