Silence before the storm in Ukraine?

This article is a translation of "Stilte voor de storm in Oekraïne?"

On Wednesday 26 November the NATO commander, Philip Breedlove, gave a press conference in Kiev in which he warned against an invasion of Ukraine. He also claimed that reinforcement of the Russian presence in Crimea gave Moscow the opportunity to control almost the entire Black Sea. Of course one can also turn such a story around and read something quite different in it, i.e., the NATO boss is in Kiev, at a time when the Russians are already very nervous about military activity on their borders (below are US military in Lithuania, where their equipment will be permanently stationed; the troops will do tours of duty). 

One would almost forget that the Americans have lost all major wars in recent memory, from Vietnam to Afghanistan and Iraq. Little wonder that their defence secretary, Chuck Hagel, has bowed out rather start a new one. But then it turns out to be very difficult to find a successor. 

Be this as it may, next year there will be 150 Abrams tanks and Bradley armoured personnel carriers deployed in Poland and the Baltic states (at this moment, there are 50 of them). Clearly NATO has not rested on its laurels from the 1989 when it was promised to Gorbachev that whilst a reunified Germany would have to remain a NATO member, from then on not one further step east would be taken.

Besides Breedlove who was in Kiev (coming on the heels of vice-president Joe Biden, who also visited), general Ben Hodges, commander of US forces in Europe, toured Poland and the Baltic states, so the top brass are coming and going. The number of American troops (currently at 29,000 in Germany, Italy and Belgium) will also be increased. The occupation of Germany has not ended with reunification, on the contrary.

What is worse is that the campaign against ‘Putin’ has reached the point where it is now normal to compare him to Hitler. Pepe Escobar has spoken to sources inside the American intelligence community who have told him that the assumption in Washington these days is that the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction has been abandoned and that a conflict in which both parties are expected to resort to nuclear weapons, is moving closer.
In Russia this leads to profound anxieties because policy-makers cannot believe that diplomacy is now in the hands of people who believe that any insult is permissible because there is no realistic expectation of a compromise.

Escobar notes that he himself cannot believe it either. Yet it is clear that the torrent of insults aimed at Putin (the Guardian speaks of a ‘strident, toxic personality’, a ‘diminutive’ figure, and so on) has not intimidated the Russian president so far.

In an interview with the German broadcaster ARD in Vladivostok Putin has warned that Russia will not look on if the Russian population would become the victim of ethnic cleansing—there are already more than 800,000 refugees who have found refuge either in Ukraine proper or (the greater part) in Russia. Also more than 4 000 dead, 1 000 since the Minsk agreement that should have terminated the hostilities.

Since Yanukowych was brought down the Russian-speaking population of Ukraine has not really been represented any more; in the last elections the turnout in areas where many Russian-speakers live was below 50 percent, and in the ‘people’s republics’ the election was boycotted and an alternative vote was organised. In the map below, from the December issue of Le Monde Diplomatique, these regional differences are shown. The Ukraine properly speaking (in an ethno-linguistic sense) is green, the rest no longer (entirely) participates. 

Whether the ‘people’s republics’ in the Donbass are viable remains to be seen. The team from Le Monde Diplomatique that visited the region found a different political structure in almost every town and city: here a Cossack Soviet republic, there an even more radical socialist community, and then of course the remarkable fact that on top of those are two ‘people’s republics’ (Lugansk and Donetsk), not one unified entity. The people are struggling to survive, certainly now that Kiev has suspended all payments of pensions and material supplies. They hang on in a ghostly scene amidst the destruction and stay alive thanks to Russian aid convoys and food parcels distributed on behalf of the criminal oligarch, Rinat Achmetov, who is being seriously suspected of having financed the insurrection originally but has meanwhile lost control of it.

Kees van der Pijl

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