The US has warned Moscow to be “very careful” in its judgments after Vladimir Putin put the armed forces in western Russia on alert in response to mounting tension in Ukraine. This comment is obviously a threat, but of what?
The US is supporting what it hypocritically calls an “anti-terror” operation in the East of Ukraine, despite the fact it inserted snipers to fire indiscriminately on crowds in Maidan Square to achieve its objectives there. In order to keep this going, NATO assets and US funding is already being overstretched in Syria, the US and the “chocolate soldiers” of the newly-installed Ukrainian government are practically picking kids off the streets of the West of the country, giving them a month’s training and then sending them to the front line as cannon fodder.
So what greater action is being threatened now?
Whenever the US gets involved in a war someone raises the spectre of Vietnam. Most US politicians of today come from a generation which fought in or protested against the Vietnam War. Young men, mostly conscripts, were sent to serve their country in a faraway place by fighting for a cause few of them understood or believed in, at great human, moral and financial cost. Those troops went home to public vilification, some as basket cases.
This historic sore explains a number of recent US actions. Having won the Gulf War the US did not topple Saddam, though it is happy to remove other rulers, because it has bitter memories of spending countless millions propping up rulers it installed to pursue its interests, such as Thieu in South Vietnam and Marcos in the Philippines. Similarly, the US rarely acts alone now, ensuring that its interventions are all NATO operations involving multiple partners. Though these actions further US policy, it does not want to carry the can if the public turn against that policy, and therefore seeks to spread the responsibility so wide it diffuses it altogether.
All this is having an effect on Ukraine. Despite the attempts to ramp up the conflict there as “freedom fighters” versus “oppressors”, as most Americans don’t know much about the place; they could care less. Whether they support sending in troops comes down to their attitude towards their own government, rather than any appreciation of the issues in the country itself.
So the US is not necessarily threatening direct military action, as the cost/benefit analysis doesn’t look good. What it is threatening is the political equivalent of “slash and burn”. It is trying to make sure that if Russia divides Ukraine this will be a pyrrhic victory, as the rump remaining will be such a revolting and belligerent neighbour it will be far worse for Russia than a Yanukovich government which joined the EU would have been.
The links between the new Ukrainian government and neo-Nazi groups are well documented. It is no accident that no one has been called to account for daubing swastikas on Jewish people’s walls in the wake of the enforced removal of Yanukovich. These neo-Nazis were not initially involved in the “popular protests” which toppled that regime, largely because most Ukrainians did not take them seriously, but were inserted later on to provide the necessary muscle and ideological commitment to throw the elected President out for a second time.
But is this muscle working? In one way yes, in one way no, and the no is an important one.
Sergei Glazyev, Advisor to the Russian President, has highlighted the activities of the neo-Nazis in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, where they are acting under the orders of Kiev, “Schools and infrastructure have been destroyed and the people of the region can expect selfdom, as can be inferred not only by the official mouthpieces, ideologists such as Liaskho but Poroshenko himself, whose position is not significantly different,” he said.
He continued by describing the merciless exploitation of the local population, who are being forced to leave unless they are tied to work in the factories and mines. The heavy shelling hardly encourages anyone to stay, of course. But he then added a telling detail: many refugees from Ukraine are migrating to Russia.
Maria Zakharova, deputy head of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s press department, has said that at least 400 soldiers, both conscripts and professionals, have so far crossed into Russia to seek asylum. These deserters stated that they do not want to participate in war crimes in their own country by targeting ethnic Russians living in Eastern Ukraine, their own countrymen, not the terrorists Kiev and the Western media told them they were fighting.
People fighting for “freedom” against “oppression” may not be competent or well-motivated but they do not contemplate deserting to the enemy. These desertions, and 400 is not an insignificant number, are a serious threat to the success of the US operation, as the more people see their comrades changing sides the more they will starting thinking the same way themselves. It will be much more difficult to justify war by saying it is about “freedom” when your own soldiers, recruited on this basis, are freely joining the “oppressors” in significant numbers.
So the US government is giving Russia an ultimatum. If it lets the US pursue its plans, all the crimes of the Nazis will stop and a democratic Ukraine, which respects human rights and which Russia can do business with, will result. If not, the US will simply leave the neo-Nazis to continue pursuing such tactics in Donbas, and everywhere else, for evermore. Paradoxically, it is asking Russia to decide what sort of government it wants to see in Ukraine, after starting the war to prevent Russia interfering in Ukraine’s affairs.
Adapt or die
One of the reasons for the desertions is that the Ukrainian population, quite rightly tired of war and being manipulated by powers who do not listen to their concerns, are not enthusiastic about the new government’s policy of mobilising the entire population against Russia. However, consider the dynamics: in December 2013 there were 2,000 members of neo-Nazi groups active in Kiev. By February there were 20,000. By May the number of neo-Nazis and new army conscripts, brought in to support their actions, had reached 50,000. By next month there will be 200,000 Nazi-led regular and irregular troops conducting combat operations, as there are plans to call up all people of military age.
If the Ukrainian Army were conducting these military actions in defence of their country this would be justified. But that is not what is happening on the ground. Apparently fearful of the army’s loyalty, the neo-Nazi groups were brought in over its head, first by the US and then the new Ukrainian government, to act as the advanced guard. They are the ones conducting operations, and the new troops are supporting their actions, not treating them as illegal irregulars as their army service oaths require them to do.
Ukraine has a large army, but a largely inactive one. Most of it is not actually being used in the conflict: only these armed Nazis, and the new green recruits supporting them, are being used to defend the country against a foreign power. Kharkov’s industries are working at full capacity restoring tanks and armour, and bringing tanks out of storage, resurrecting and modernising them is not difficult. Likewise aviation is being brought out of storage in Odessa. But it is not being put at the service of the Ukrainian army but irregular neo-Nazi groups, who ordinarily would have no claim on state equipment.
As the neo-Nazis are leading the process, they are not going to take orders from the Ukrainian government or even the US which put them in this position. They will pursue their own ideological conflict on their own volition. Ukraine is helping them because it suits Ukraine’s purposes, for now. But does anyone seriously think that if Poroshenko ordered them to withdraw, or stop committing atrocities, they would take any notice?
The US is trying to blame all this on Russia. The neo-Nazis were inserted to counter Russian ambitions in Ukraine, as the US portrayed them. They are still being supported, in spite of the desertions, to show Russia that unless it backs down it will inflict them on Ukraine forever, no matter what. This is a genuine threat to Russia too, as it is dealing with its own terrorist threats in Chechnya, Daghestan and other parts of its vast territory and does not want another player to join a network of interconnected anti-Russian terror groups, with the resources of a national army at its disposal.
Springtime for Poroshenko
War of some sort over Crimea is now inevitable, as Ukraine is not going to give it up. US State department envoy Victoria Nuland has said so in as many words. She stated in Odessa that the US expect their Ukrainian agents, the neo-Nazi groups they armed and gave credibility to, to go to war against Russia for Crimea. But as the US also installed the Ukrainian government, and can therefore control the Ukrainian army, one would think it would not be necessary to use these groups to achieve any military objective.
If the war over Crimea is conducted by neo-Nazis and conscripts brought in to support them, rather than the Ukrainian army, this gives everyone a get-out. If Ukraine loses it can absolve itself of these people and enter into negotiations, whilst not giving up its claims to Crimea. If it wins, the country will rejoice in its reunification and assertion of independence, and how it got to that point will be forgotten.
Poroshenko is doubtless aware that Margaret Thatcher, the iconic political figure of the 1980s, was a failing British Prime Minister, whose policies were not believed to be working, until the Falklands conflict with Argentina in 1982 made it seem that her “tough girl” approach was right and therefore every “tough” policy she espoused was also right. He is also aware that he did not actually win the election which put him in power: experts have computed that not more than 40% actually voted for him. So if Poroshenko can get his proxies to bolster his own position, fine. If it doesn’t work, he will not have to take the blame, and reemerge as the face of democracy and reason.
It is widely proffered in the controlled Western press that Russia is mostly to blame for the Ukraine conflict. The US has won that PR battle, at least for now. It is now trying to threaten that Ukraine will be run by neo-Nazis in perpetuity, and it will be Russia’s fault, if Russia does not toe the line. This is a threat Russia has to take seriously, not wanting more Moscow Underground bombings. Whether Ukrainians and Europeans themselves will allow such a situation to exist remains to be seen.
Henry Kamens, columnist, expert on Central Asia and Caucasus, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.