American mercenaries in Ukraine and the parallel with Yugoslavia

The crisis in Ukraine is assuming ever more dangerous forms and may already have passed the point where a Yugoslav scenario becomes inevitable. After an incident like the one in Odessa, where dozens of Russian-speaking activists who had fled into a trade union building, perished when it was torched, there seems really no way back without a neutral military force which imposes itself on the warring parties. 

Among the parallels with Yugoslavia, two are of special importance. In the first place, the shockingly partisan attitude of our politicians and the media coverage here, which is all the louder where mutual rivalries must be covered up. Secondly, the process of civil war itself and the sort of people coming to the fore in such a conflict—on both sides. 

The partisan posture of our foreign secretary, Frans Timmermans, and his friends in NATO and in the media is based on a blend of honest ignorance and conscious distortion. The role of neo-fascists like Right Sector and Svoboda is being talked down, people speak of ‘Russians’ when actually the reference is to Russian-speaking Ukrainians, etc. In addition everybody joins in the demonisation of one personality, who is enlarged to absurd proportions to serve as a bogeyman: in Yugoslavia this was Milosevic, and this time, it is Putin. Both leaders were/are a product of societies which after the collapse of state socialism landed in an identity crisis and an economic crisis and also felt threatened by the relentless Western economic and political pressure. It may sound odd but Putin too in many respects is therefore ‘our man’ in Moscow.

Another similarity with the Yugoslav scenario is the ease with which NATO pushes aside the halfhearted EU attempts to steer clear of a surge of violence. Of course in Yugoslavia it was Germany that started the destabilisation process by unilaterally recognising the secession of Slovenia and Croatia. But in both cases Western support for a violent solution in the end also served to cover up rivalries between, notably, Germany and the United States.

This time the rivalry transpires in the fact that it is the German press which makes public information concerning US mercenaries in Ukraine, which in turn has been provided by German intelligence. Thus the German BND has passed on information to the tabloid, Bild , that CIA and FBI advisers are assisting the Ukrainian putschists in Kiev; Der Spiegel in turn reports that 400 mercenaries of the American private military company Academi, formerly Blackwater, are involved in attempts to regain control of Slavyansk in eastern Ukraine—likewise on the basis of sources from the intelligence services.

The history of Blackwater is told in Jeremy Scahill’s eponymous book. The dispatching of foreigners who, as Scahill relates, stop at nothing (their role in the incidents that eventually led to the American assault on Fallujah in Iraq is central here), is necessary because the regular Ukrainian army can not be deployed against their own population, or insufficiently so. With these reinforcements however, the ‘national guard’ (partly recruited from Ukrainian neo-fascists) may succeed in regaining control over parts of eastern Ukraine.

Of course these reports about American mercenaries are being eagerly relayed by Russia Today, which already in March raised the alarm over the involvement of Blackwater/Academi. At the time this concerned Greystone, a subsidiary of Academi/Blackwater registered in Barbados for tax reasons. Greystone had placed 300 mercenaries at the disposal of the putschists in Kiev, although this was not confirmed by other sources—this time it has.

Thus we get to the second similarity with Yugoslavia: the nature of the warring parties. In Yugoslavia there were neo-fascist elements on the Croatian side, but nobody should underrate what kind of people took up arms on the Bosnian-Serb side either, or the Serbs who rushed to support them. These are best understood in the tradition of the semi-fascist Četniks, the opposite number of the Kroatian uštasa, which during the Nazi occupation exterminated more than a million Serbs. The difference with Tito’s communists, who during their guerrilla campaign against the Germans developed an internationalist policy that was based on balancing the numerically inevitable weight of Serbia in a federation, is fundamental here.

This should be a warning not to project the sympathy we can have for Yugoslav internationalism on rump-Yugoslavia, and certainly not on Bosnian-Serbian leaders like Karadzic and Mladic, whom even Milosevic had little or no control over. Because this would in turn easily to denying or condoning the bloodbath of Srebeniča, about which a lot can be said, but not that it did not happen.

The same applies to eastern Ukraine. The Russians have admitted having no control over the Russian-speaking separatists, and Putin has in vain proposed to postpone the referendum on regional autonomy. Nobody is therefore helped when we extend possible sympathy for the former Soviet Union, or understanding of the humiliations suffered by Russia after 1991, to the armed groups in eastern Ukraine.

Whoever watches the interview with the ‘mayor’ of Slavyansk will understand that once fighting erupts, it will not be the members of the local symphony orchestra who rush to take up positions. What comes to the fore in a conflict like this is a mixture of violent, often criminal elements, whose special skill is fighting, not playing the violin. 

The tragedy of Ukraine, like that of Yugoslavia, is that the mass of the population rises up against leaders who have exchanged socialist principles for shameless self-enrichment, but that this divide is cut across by another one, one separating sections of the population, who then pass under the influence of their respective warlords once violence prevails over peaceful resistance. Because the West prefers national to class conflict, it will not shrink from supporting the forces opting for a civil war.

Kees van der Pijl

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