Purging Purgin, Pushing Pushilin (full version)

Turkeys voting for Thanksgiving?

Turkeys voting for Thanksgiving?

News just in that Denis Pushilin has just been elected interim speaker of the parliament (People’s Council) of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), replacing Andrei Purgin. Pushilin, who had held that role May-July 2014, used language fit for the 1930s, when he explained Purgin’s ouster as following an attempt by him

“to disrupt the meeting of the People’s Council, when the deputies had to listen to false declarations made with the aim of increasing tensions and destabilizing the situation.”

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Right Sector and Wrong Directions in Ukraine

MukachevoThe unfolding story of Mukachevo (Mukacheve) is in many ways both a tragic consequence for Ukraine’s recent trajectory and also grounds for potential optimism.

The tragedy is that while post-Maidan Ukraine was never the neo-fascist construct believed of Pervy Kanal TV (and a note to the trolls: don’t conflate the Maidan with the Poroshenko regime; the one toppled Yanukovych, the other was subsequently elected), there is no escaping the crucial role played by various ultra-nationalists that, yes, did include fascists. Subsequently, in the name of responding to the Russian-orchestrated rebellion in the Donbas, and also because it did not dare challenge this fraction given its lack of connection with its own security forces, the government granted them considerable autonomy and has continued to do so.

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South-Eastern Ukraine: the “Baked Alaska Conflict”

I never knew it could also come flambé; that makes the parallel even more apt

I never knew it could also come flambé; that makes the parallel even more apt

What can we call the miserable, simmering-occasionally-boiling-over war in south-eastern Ukraine? While writing something for a Serious Publication, I came up with the analogy of the baked alaska. For those of you who don’t know this delightful dessert, it’s ice cream on a cake base, covered with meringue which is then quickly cooked. Now, there is nothing delightful about the Donbass war, but the baked alaska does give us a useful simile even if one which, for wholly understandable reasons, the Serious Publication thought seems a little too light-hearted for such a bloody and miserable conflict.

I can’t see Minsk-2 or any other initiatives leading to a meaningful political settlement and the region’s reintegration into Ukraine for some time yet. But nor do I see a plausible “Crimean variant” with the Donbass incorporated into Russia. So, at heart, the conflict is already frozen.

At the same time, though, Moscow and its local proxies/puppets/allies (at different times, they have different roles, and we ought not to forget that they have a worrying degree of agency themselves) have adopted and will probably maintain a strategy of tension. At the borders of the region they control, we see constant small- and medium-scale attacks intended both to put pressure on Kiev and also as a form of political “reconnaissance by fire”. While a major offensive of the sort that would lead in all probability to an increase in the sanctions regime may be unlikely, if they see an opportunity for smaller-scale, local advances, they they can gladly exploit it. Again, I don’t see this changing.

Frozen at heart, decidedly hot at the edges: I give you the “baked alaska conflict.”

First thoughts on Nemtsov’s posthumous “Putin. War.” report on Russian operations in Ukraine

Ilya Yashin, presenting the report

Ilya Yashin, presenting the report

Putin. War., the report on the Ukrainian adventure that Boris Nemtsov was working on when he was murdered, has been released, completed by Ilya Yashin and other allies and cohorts. It’s an interesting document, even if it essentially fleshes out what we already knew rather than saying anything truly novel (the section on the MH17 shoot-down, adding to the chorus of voices blaming the rebels, largely draws on existing, available studies, for example). That’s not in any way to undermine the genuine bravery of those people involved in the project, including not just Yashin but a range of opposition-minded figures from Oleg Kashin to Ekaterina Vinokurova. But I think it does put paid to the suggestion that Nemtsov was assassinated to prevent the report from coming out, especially as now it will probably get more coverage than it would otherwise.

Anyway, here are a few first thoughts on the report: (more…)

Why Is Donetsk Airport So Important?

Still image taken from handout aerial footage shot by drone shows outline o airplane in the snow at the Sergey Prokofiev International Airport damaged by shelling during fighting between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian government forces, in Donetsk

Not looking its best

As of writing, after having almost lost Donetsk’s poor, battered airport to rebel forces, the Ukrainian army seems to have launched a counter-attack which has at least stabilised the situation, and may even mean they will take it back in its entirety. This is ‘proper’ war in all its boy’s own pyrotechnics, with armour, artillery and close-quarters fighting, and has left the recently-rebuilt and once-glittering airport a blasted ruin. So why is it so important?

1. Symbolism. Kiev’s forces have, to be charitable, a mixed record in fighting this conflict. Regardless of the scale of Russian assistance to the rebels–sometimes in the form of direct intervention, largely through men and materiel–the government forces have often seemed badly-prepared, unable to follow through local successes and, frankly, badly commanded. The “cyborgs” defending the beleaguered airport for so long, despite near-constant threat of snipers, artillery and outright assault, have been conspicuous in their resolution. For them to have lost the airport, that advance intrusion into the heart of the rebellion, would have been a serious blow to their morale and the credibility of the government, as well as a fillip for the DNR at a time when its backing in Moscow looks under some pressure.

2. Supply. One of the clear aims of successive government offensives has been to isolate Donetsk or at least to be able to do more to interdict resupply to the city. Luhansk is one thing, but Donetsk is the real heart of the rebellion. If they were able to encircle the city, they could besiege it, and while one hopes they would not violate international law and try to starve it, they could at least seek to prevent the resupply of weapons and ammunition. Modern warfare is voracious in its demands for logistical support, and the capacity of the rebels to maintain the kind of high-tempo attacks we’ve seen of late would be severely affected. Sure, they wouldn’t run out of bullets for a long time, but the Grad rockets and similar artillery support they’ve deployed would have to be used much more sparingly.

However, if the rebels controlled the airport, and could clear it enough to be even marginally useable (and let’s face it, for all their crudity at times, Soviet/Russian transports are typically better at rough landings), Moscow acquired the air resupply option. Let’s say they mounted their own “Berlin Airlift”, with white-painted aircraft they say are just bringing in relief supplies for the poor, hungry citizens of Donetsk. This would pose a tricky military/political dilemma for Kiev. Let the planes through and allow the Russians to resupply DNR forces with impunity? Or try to block the flights and look heartless and, worse yet, maybe ending up shooting down a plane and give Moscow a casus belli and something that would make the MH17 shootdown history?

A Ukraine-Russia peace deal: Crimea must have a cost

March-06-14-Russia-Ukraine-and-Obama2Efforts to secure some kind of peace deal between Moscow and Kiev—and not just a temporary ceasefire that preserves a frozen conflict—continue. The latest suggestions are that Washington is coming up with proposals to this effect, as explored in this story from Bloomberg by Josh Rogin. While not officially confirmed, its details chime with what I have been hearing from people in and close to the policy circles. The essence is that in return “for a partial release of some of the most onerous economic sanctions” Russia would have to adhere to September’s Minsk agreement and cease direct military support for the rebels, while the “issue of Crimea would be set aside for the time being, and some of the initial sanctions that were put in place after Crimea’s annexation would be kept in place.”

In other words, Russia’s seizure of Crimea would be considered a done deal and taken out of the equation, in return for only minor and personal (ie, not systemic) sanctions, while Russia and Ukraine would in effect be considered to have positions of equal moral weight in the negotiations over eastern Ukraine. Although it is essential to end this war—and both Moscow and Kiev want and would gain from a resolution—this basis is, in my option, immoral, muddle-headed and downright dangerous.

1. Yes, alas for the moment it is not worth trying to get Moscow to surrender Crimea. It may not be right, but this is the only viable position. For Putin to abandon the peninsula would not be totally against his own instincts, it would also be politically lethal, critically undermining his credibility and legitimacy. He simply will not do this. (more…)

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