02.03.2015 Author: Nile Bowie

A year after Euro-Maidan, Ukraine coming apart at the seams

5645333It has been a year since protestors descended on Kiev’s Independence Square calling for the ouster of President Victor Yanukovich. Though the movement consisted of both liberal pro-European elements and rightwing quasi-fascist groups, most international media chose to frame the events of Maidan in a way that misleadingly obscured the role of the latter.

While reports indicate that pro-Western intelligentsia and activists are leaving their country in droves, the situation in Ukraine today cannot be properly understood without fully appreciating the role of quasi-fascist paramilitaries and their private-sector backers, who now exert tremendous influence on the leadership in Kiev and the political climate in Ukraine more generally.

Though the crisis in Ukraine remains a domestic conflict between the majority of citizens in the west who favor ties with Brussels and those in east who seek autonomy, independence or ascension into the Russian Federation, the growing internationalization of the conflict risks an irreversible escalation.

The recent Nato exercises in the Estonian frontier town of Narva that saw a parade of military hardware laden with American flags some 300 yards from Russia’s border, prompting counter-exercises from Moscow, is indicative of the increasingly provocative measures being taken. As the neo-conservative faction in Washington essentially steers the Obama administration’s policy, the idea of a Cold War-style stand-off between Russia and Nato grows ever more plausible.

Deepening Financial Crisis

The Ukrainian economy is bleeding out and rapidly approaching insolvency. The national currency, the hryvnia, has depreciated 68 percent in the past 12 months. Reports from Kiev indicate an ongoing disagreement between the central bank, which has tightened controls on capital movement to suppress capital flight, and Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who reportedly opposed capital control measures.

The central bank lifted restrictions on capital movements on Yatsenyuk’s orders, sparking a further free-fall of the hryvnia, making it the world’s worst performing currency, according to Bloomberg. Ukrainian bonds have become the worst performing among 58 nations on Bloomberg’s Emerging Market Sovereign Bond Index, having plunged by 25 percent this year.

Ukraine is now in the throes of a hyper-inflationary crisis, kept afloat by IMF loans that require gauging structural adjustments and austerity measures. GDP figures have dropped 6.5 percent in the last year, while the unemployment rate has climbed to 9.3 percent in 2014. The minimum wage has hit an all-time low of $43 USD, considerably below the wage equivalents of Bangladesh, Lesotho or Chad.

According to reports, residents are considerably panicked as they stock up on foodstuffs in preparation for further economic turbulence. While a lull in fighting has taken place in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, the ceasefire remains extremely fragile. The new authorities in Kiev would likely impose martial law across the country if further fighting breaks out between separatist militias and government forces, backed by quasi-fascist volunteer battalions.

Separatist Victory at Debaltseve

Clashes have reignited between the Ukrainian army and separatist militias just days after marathon negotiations in Minsk between the presidents of France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia to establish a lasting ceasefire. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and the military leadership have been subjected to domestic ridicule following the army’s crushing defeat and surrender at Debaltseve, a strategic railway and communications hub linking self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk republics.

Several thousand Ukrainian soldiers became encircled within Debaltseve, according to reports, while attempting to retain Kiev’s last supply route into the besieged town. Numerous casualties were lost on both sides as the separatist leadership disavowed the ceasefire agreement in the area of Debaltseve. Alexander Zakharchenko, leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk republic, had issued statements reiterating assurances ensuring the safety of Ukrainian soldiers trapped in the Debaltseve pocket if they surrendered peacefully, culminating in a major victory for the separatist side.

The loss of Debaltseve comes after a string of military victories for the separatists, placing Poroshenko in a politically vulnerable position amid increasing public frustration with the country’s military hierarchy. Poroshenko’s administration has reinstated a previously scraped mandatory military conscription policy, generating opposition from activists who supported the overthrow of the former regime, including high-profile journalist Ruslan Kotsaba, who was arrested and charged with treason after denouncing Kiev’s mobilization plans.

Thousands have dodged the military draft while the government mulls new laws to restrict the foreign and domestic travel of Ukraine’s military age males, many of who would rather take refuge in Russia or neighboring countries than volunteer to be sent to the frontlines. Those who have responded to the draft view their service as an obligatory patriotic duty, though the series of military defeats in correlation with prolonged political, economic and security crises is widely seen as having exhausted the morale of the army.

Poroshenko is additionally under pressure from ultra-nationalist volunteer battalions, which function as private paramilitary groups in the service of wealthy businesspersons who reportedly fund multiple battalions. Volunteer battalions operate autonomously, outside the military’s chain of command with virtually no oversight, having formed over the last twelve months to compensate for the army’s lack of experience and manpower. These privately funded paramilitaries are known to have committed widespread human rights abuses and war crimes throughout the conflict.

While the majority of these militias subscribe to ideologies of far-right ultra-nationalism, groups such as the Azov Battalion are openly neo-Nazi in their political orientation. The Guardian newspaper described the group as being the “most serious threat to the Ukrainian government” once the fighting in the east subsides. Kiev has relied heavily on volunteer battalions to clamp down on the country’s separatist rebellions but there are indications that the central government is uneasy with the autonomy and growing political clout of paramilitary organizations.

Members of the infamous Aidar Battalion recently stormed the headquarters of the Defense Ministry and the president’s office after Kiev attempted to disband the group, while others have called for Poroshenko’s resignation over his poor handling of the war effort. Poroshenko earns no domestic political points by taking a pacifist position in this situation. His recent calls for a peacekeeping mission under the aegis of the EU should also be seen as an indicator of insecurity, underscoring’s Kiev’s desire to introduce a European security presence to police the line between his regime and other disparate battalions with political ambitions.

Military Trainers & Arms Transfers

The clearest policy divisions between Washington and European capitals have surfaced over the issue of providing lethal weapons to Kiev. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande were seen as the driving forces behind the latest session of marathon diplomacy talks in the Belarusian capital, Minsk.

Germany, France and other European powers are opposed to supplying Kiev with lethal weapons over fears that doing so would be detrimental to securing a negotiated settlement, possibly leading to a broader shooting war on Europe’s doorstep capable of drawing into major international actors.

Business elites across the EU have also likely placed much pressure on Merkel and Hollande to normalize the situation and persuade Washington to ease sanctions on Russia due to huge economic losses generated by the suspension of trade activities. European leaders themselves do not expect the Minsk ceasefire to hold, as minor clashes have continued to persist, though there are indications have heavy weapons are beginning to be withdrawn from the front lines.

The Obama administration had previously announced plans to send hundreds of US military advisers to support the Ukrainian army and ultra-nationalist volunteer battalions. Any collapse of the already fragile ceasefire agreed upon in Minsk will likely provide the Obama administration with the impetus needed to send lethal arms to Kiev with the acquiesce of Europe.

British Prime David Cameron, under fire domestically for his absence at the Minsk dialogues, has recently announced his government’s intentions to deploy British military personnel to Ukraine as advisers. A strong case can be made that the presence of American and British soldiers, be they trainers or not, violates the framework of the Minsk agreements, which calls for the withdrawal of foreign ‘armed formations’.

The continued deployment of Western military advisers, as well as provocative displays of Nato force, are transparent means to prevent the deescalation of the crisis in Ukraine. Kiev’s backers in the West are essentially aiming to coax direct Russian intervention to justify their own conduct and aggressive mischaracterizations of Moscow. 

It is clear that Russia has allowed the flow of weapons, foreign fighters and Russian volunteers across the border, as well as various forms of assistance from sympathetic private organizations. Moscow certainly supplied intelligence, logistical and political support to the separatist fighters, which have given the latter a clear advantage on the ground.

It is a mistake, however, to view Russia’s conduct in the Donbass region as having offensive objectives. Russian politicians and state media refer to the separatists as ‘self-defense forces,’ and the state has played in a role in enabling the separatists to defend their territory from excessive Ukrainian shelling and advances.

President Vladimir Putin has consistently called for a non-military solution to the crisis that respects Ukraine’s territorial integrity, encouraging the separatists to accept a high degree of autonomy with a federalized, unitary Ukraine. Russia is ultimately interested in having a stable business relationship with a non-aligned, neutral administration in Kiev.

This crisis and all the causalities incurred over the last year could have been wholly avoided had Washington and Brussels not strong-armed the previous Ukrainian government into a zero-sum game: a choice between east and west. The Maidan has long become the albatross around Ukraine’s neck. 

Nile Bowie is a political analyst based in Malaysia who has written for a number of publications, his expertise lies in a number of areas, with a particular focus on Asian politics and geopolitics, especially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.