Towards endgame in the Ukraine

Vladimir Putin has managed to turn Russia's biggest European neighbour into a permanent enemy.

Gwynne Dyer

As the Russian-backed rebels abandoned almost all their positions in eastern Ukraine apart from the two regional capital cities, Donetsk and Luhansk, the various players made predictable statements.

Newly elected Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said cautiously that this could be “the beginning of the turning point in the fight against militants.” Don’t make promises that you are not sure you can keep.

The new defence minister, Lieutenant-General Valeriy Heletey, boldly promised the Ukrainian parliament that “There will be a victory parade… in Ukraine’s Sevastopol.” But that would require the Ukraine to take back the southern province of Crimea, which Russia seized and annexed in March, so it is a promise that will never be kept. Crimea is gone.

Pavel Gubarev, the self-proclaimed governor of the Donetsk People’s Republic, told a rally in the city that “We will begin a real partisan war around the whole perimeter of Donetsk. We will drown these wretches (the Ukrainian army) in blood.” That is standard morale-raising rhetoric in the wake of a military collapse — or, as the rebels prefer to call it, a “tactical retreat.”

But Igor Strelkov, the military commander of the rebels in Donetsk province, made a truly revealing comment. Pleading for Russian military intervention on 3 July, five days before his paramilitary forces abandoned Sloviansk, Kramatorsk and other rebel strongholds in the north of the province, Strelkov warned Moscow that his troops were “losing the will to fight.”

A military commander will never admit such a thing in public unless his situation is truly desperate. How desperate became clear on Tuesday when Strelkov’s troops all headed south for the relative safety of Donetsk city.

The Ukrainian army had been shelling them in Sloviansk, but there was no major Ukrainian offensive. The rebel fighters just started pulling out of the city, and those in other rebel-held northern towns followed suit. Strelkov (who is actually a Russian citizen named Igor Girkin) was left scrambling to explain what was happening in terms that made military sense, and he did the best he could.

This may be telling President Poroshenko what he most wants to know, which is whether or not this week’s events really constitute a “turning point” in the military conflict in eastern Ukraine. The answer appears to be “yes”: the morale of Strelkov’s troops (many of whom are Russian “volunteers”) is cracking as they realise that the motherland is really not going to send its own army into eastern Ukraine to help them out.

There never was mass support for the pro-Russian “revolution” in Donetsk and Luhansk provinces in April. Most people there speak Russian, and they were worried about where the real revolution in Kiev was taking the country even before Russian propaganda started telling them that “fascists” had seized control of the country and wanted to kill them. But they didn’t actually want to join Russia.

When the real revolution began in Kiev late last year, huge crowds of unarmed civilians stayed on Independence Square day and night for months. Only in the final few days did former president Viktor Yanukovych order his police to start shooting, and only then did firearms also appear in the crowd. Things happened very differently in the east.

There were no huge crowds when pro-Russian rebels seized power in the east, no lengthy occupations of public squares by unarmed civilians, certainly no violence by government forces. Heavily armed groups of masked men just appeared in the streets and took over, declaring that they were creating revolutionary regimes to save the people from the “fascists” in Kiev.

Civilians in the east were sufficiently worried about the intentions of the new government in Kiev that they did not come out in the streets to oppose this armed take-over, but they never came out in large numbers to support it either. This was more evident than ever on Wednesday, when Pavel Gubarev was promising to defend the “whole perimeter” of the city and drown the Ukrainian army in blood.

Donetsk has almost two million inhabitants. The crowd at Gubarev’s rally was a couple of thousand at most. Donetsk will not become a new Stalingrad.

So, at the risk of tempting fate, a prediction: the fighting in eastern Ukraine will not go on for months more, and there will be no heroic rebel last stand in Donetsk or Luhansk. The Ukrainian army is already encircling both cities, but it will not launch a major assault on them either. It will just keep the pressure up, and the rebel forces will quickly melt away.

Western countries will repair their relations with Moscow as fast as possible, since they do not want a new Cold War. But Ukrainians will not forget that Russia seized Crimea and sponsored an armed separatist rebellion in their eastern provinces. President Vladimir Putin has managed to turn Russia’s biggest European neighbour into a permanent enemy.

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist based in London

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