Fears of an oligarchs war creep into Ukraine

Ukraine’s President Poroshenko has fired the billionaire Governor of Dnipropetrovsk, a southeastern oblast next to war-torn Donetsk, after the latter allegedly sent armed gunmen to the capital on Sunday to enter the offices of a state oil firm when his friend was fired as director.

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Gov. Kolomoisky, appointed after the fall of the Yanukovich government, had been a vital ally in the war with Russia by financing a private army to support the central government. He publicly contends that the gunmen were not part of his units and had not been sent there on his orders. His allies also claimed a political hatchet job was being enacted against him.

According to the Financial Times, fellow oligarch President Poroshenko took a very dim view of this explanation:

Addressing Ukrainian soldiers in Kiev, Mr Poroshenko said: “We will not have any governor with their own pocket army”.

 
Other allegations assert that Kolomoisky has used his private army not just to fend off rebel advances but also to protect his business interests. The fact that he used to manage the oil company directly until recent reforms essentially spun its management back over to the state in a move he has fought probably strengthens the assumption that he was behind the mini-siege at the offices in Kiev beginning this past weekend. Plus, he showed up in person later in the day to defend the need for “private security,” even if he denied responsibility for the arrival of the gunmen.

Ironically (or perhaps cynically), Gov. Kolomoisky has actually previously accused other oligarchs of ill-gotten gains in the largely corrupt, post-Soviet privatizations that made most of them very wealthy.

Nevertheless, this latest fracas raises the specter of the militarily vital private armies being turned against the revolution and the elected government.
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Despite the war, Ukraine is digging itself out

Alexei Bayer for The Globalist (and the Kyiv Post) on the state of Putin’s war in Ukraine:

After [the capture of Crimea], the war has not been going especially well. On the contrary, all of Putin’s plans have failed. After the flight of buffoonish Viktor Yanukovych, Ukrainians have been able to elect a legitimate government and to build a stronger, battle-hardened military.

Ukraine’s economy is struggling, but it has not collapsed and bankruptcy is now unlikely, given the $17.5 billion aid package approved by the International Monetary Fund earlier this month. Slowly but surely, the Ukrainian economic system is undergoing the necessary reforms that have been delayed by a quarter of a century.

Meanwhile, Putin’s Novorossiya project, had envisioned annexing eastern and southern portions of Ukraine to connect by land to Crimea and to link with the breakaway Transnistria region of Moldova. The project has failed miserably, shrinking to the size of two small, lawless and starving “People’s Republics.”

 
Russia might win individual battles, but the goals of seizing territory permanently and fundamentally destabilizing the Ukrainian governmental system for years to come are not coming easily or quickly…and might not come at all.

Arsenal For Democracy Background Reports on This Topic:

Putin’s Novorossiya Project
Get to Know a Geopolitical Flashpoint: Transdniestria
Ukraine: In defense of a “total war” in the east
Rebel offensive targets corridor to Crimea

Novorossiya/New Russia in the Russian Empire in 1897. (Credit: Dim Grits - Wikimedia)

Novorossiya/New Russia in the Russian Empire in 1897. (Credit: Dim Grits – Wikimedia)

Ukraine rebel offensive targets corridor to Crimea

Last week, as the “ceasefire” (or mild de-escalation) in eastern Ukraine crumbled into dust, so too did the Ukrainian military’s grasp of the highly contested Donetsk Airport, which had become an intense battlefield during the war and a symbol of national resistance against armed Russian interference in the country’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, and affairs.

Today the conflict shifted southward to the Donetsk oblast’s second-largest city, Mariupol, the government’s temporary oblast capital, while the city of Donetsk itself remains in rebel hands. Donetsk rebel commander Alexander Zakharchenko reportedly told Russia’s Interfax news agency “We have started an offensive on Mariupol.”

Mariupol falling to “separatist” forces now could potentially change the balance of the war, which had slowly been tipping toward the Ukrainian nationalist side until the recent setback at the Donetsk airport. Ukrainian military control of Mariupol until now has been a major obstacle to unification of separatist zones and Russian-occupied Crimea, although the agricultural/industrial-centered Zaporizhia Oblast (and a corner of the Kherson Oblast) would also need to be crossed before achieving unification.

Such a development would (by cutting Ukraine off from the Sea of Azov) link Russia by land all the way to Russian-occupied Crimea in a “corridor” or “land bridge,” using the European route E58 highway (see second map below) and covering much of the coastal edge of the territory known in the Imperial Russian period as Novorossiya or “New Russia.”

Novorossiya/New Russia in the Russian Empire in 1897. (Credit: Dim Grits - Wikimedia)

Novorossiya/New Russia in the Russian Empire in 1897. (Credit: Dim Grits – Wikimedia)

That label, in fact, has been widely adopted by Russian-speaking separatists to refer collectively to the rebel-held territories in eastern Ukraine. The historic term resurfaced in an April 17, 2014 televised townhall-style forum held in Russia by President Vladimir Putin.

A land bridge between Crimea (annexed last year by Russia) and the Russian mainland would, by many estimates, dramatically reduce the cost to Russia of holding Crimea while providing services (including electricity, currently purchased from Ukraine!), food, and other vital goods. Currently those only reach Crimea by ferry from a relatively remote corner of Russia, and an actual bridge — which is going to be very expensive — is not expected to open for several more years (if it ever starts being built).

Donetsk Oblast: Novoazovsk and Mariupol on the Sea of Azov near the Russian border. Click to navigate.

Donetsk Oblast: Novoazovsk and Mariupol on the Sea of Azov near the Russian border. Click to navigate.

Previously, back in May, Ukrainian ultra-billionaire Rinat Akhmetov — now slipped to 117 on the Forbes list of the world’s richest people — ejected local separatists from the government buildings they were “occupying” in Mariupol, and sent his own private workers to start cleaning up so local public functions could resume. He took a firm, public stance against independence or annexation to Russia. As a result, that port city on the Sea of Azov coast, was relatively removed from the center of the clashes between separatists and Ukrainian troops sent by Kiev, until late summer.

It has been under threat since the August 27, 2014 invasion of Novoazovsk by at least a thousand unmarked Russian Federation troops and heavy armor vehicles. The highway between the two nearby cities became a contested area until the de-escalation during the “ceasefire” period.

Today, however, the Washington Post reports the Mariupol itself was hit by shelling shortly before the Donetsk rebel commander Zakharchenko’s announcement of the Mariupol offensive:

Zakharchenko later added that the rebels’ intention was to suppress Ukrainian troops to the east of the city, but not to storm Mariupol.

Ukrainian officials had earlier accused pro-Russian rebels of launching a deadly shelling Saturday against Mariupol. The shelling killed 27 civilians and wounded 99, Andrey Fedai of the Mariupol City Council posted on his Facebook page.

Pro-Kiev forces in Mariupol said Saturday on its VKontake page that the shelling had come from rebel-held territory, while Col. Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for the Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council, said that “at least three Grad systems” — referring to rocket-launchers — were used in the shelling.

 
As usual, the separatist forces blamed the Ukrainian military for the shelling as a self-inflicted act to provoke public opposition to the separatist cause — and denied all claims that it was attacking the city at all.

The US and Ukrainian governments predicted a wider operational objective, implying a Crimea corridor though not stating it explicitly:

“Today’s indiscriminate shelling of Mariupol [is] part of an apparently Russian-backed general offensive in complete violation of Minsk agreements,” U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt tweeted Saturday morning.

 
The recent fighting would appear to signal the end of the de-escalation achieved by the Minsk agreements as fighting ramped up to a level of violence not seen since the period before the agreements:

The United Nations estimated Friday that almost 5,100 people have died in Ukraine since the fighting began last April — 262 in the past nine days before the updated figure was published, making it the deadliest period since this summer, before the Minsk cease-fire agreement was signed.

Ukraine: In defense of a “total war” in the east

Ukraine did not oppress or attack its Donbass or Crimean citizens, and yet they took up arms against the government. (A disorderly but civilian-led, non-violent, constitutional change in central government doesn’t qualify as a legitimate cause of secession, particularly when even the former president’s power base in eastern Ukraine overwhelmingly also supported his removal.) Ukraine has held back in Crimea because it was unprepared and secessionist sentiment was much higher there. Ukraine’s government has also held back in the east until now, for the most part, to try to find a political solution and to spare the lives of innocent local civilians wherever possible, particularly since most of them initially opposed the secessions being foisted on them by radicals and Russian infiltrators.

That time has come and gone, and Russian interference continues unabated. Something has to be done to recover rebellious territories that pre-emptively took up arms against their country without warning or cause.

President Poroshenko’s announcement last weekend was that Ukraine is “ready for total war” against the eastern secessionist zones, after much restraint and persistently separatist-sabotaged negotiations.

Total and overwhelming force against armed, insurgent separatists is morally acceptable in the recovery of territory when the government has done nothing to warrant its secession and no peaceful efforts to achieve partition have been attempted. The Ukrainian government is no more “fascist” (as Russian media claims daily) than Abraham Lincoln for trying to end these illegitimate and violent secessions. 

And the specially-elected Poroshenko government and newly elected parliament are legitimate governing authorities elected by free, fair, and popular vote in the non-insurrectionist vast majority of the country. Rebel blockades of the 2014 special Ukrainian elections in their small zones of control are not an impediment to the legitimacy of the elections, in the same way President Lincoln’s 1864 re-election was legitimate despite the non-participation of Union-occupied secessionist states and Confederate-controlled rebel states.

In addition to overwhelming force, Ukraine can also legitimately engage in economic warfare against the insurrectionist areas, as part of the “total war” strategy. Suspension of services, economic blockades, general sanctions, and the like are all regularly deployed tools of warfare. Poroshenko’s cancellation this week of various banking, governmental, and pension services in rebel-held areas is a long-overdue step that most governments would have taken sooner, restraint or no.

People in areas in an active state of insurrection and secession cannot reasonably expect to receive continued government services and pensions, regardless of combatant status. If they have now set their clocks to Moscow time, they can also get Moscow to replace all their abruptly deactivated ATM cards. Hundreds of thousands of people have already fled the combat zones (whether to Russia or to government areas).
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NATO: Russian tanks have entered eastern Ukraine

Over the weekend, Ukrainian officials asserted that 32 Russian tanks had been spotted entering rebel-held areas of eastern Ukraine.

Initially, there was no confirmation from NATO — they said they would look into it — and it seemed highly implausible to me, since much of the Russian military aid effort has hinged upon unmarked equipment and uniforms and insisting that separatist forces could have all those people and weapons without Russian donations. Tanks are not in the same category. My thought was: how would Russia convince everyone that homegrown separatists had acquired 32 tanks magically? Trucks and rockets can be bought and imported easily (by comparison) and discreetly. Tanks, in bulk, don’t belong to non-state forces unless captured (which doesn’t usually happen en masse except in Iraq!) or transferred by a state actor (i.e. Russia). So if the rebels suddenly get 32 tanks, nobody but Russia could have given that to them, which removes plausible deniability. 

Today, NATO’s top officials confirmed tanks, other heavy equipment, and more combat troops had indeed been sighted entering the country. BBC:

Nato officials have seen Russian military equipment and Russian combat troops entering Ukraine this week, its top commander says. “Russian tanks, Russian artillery, Russian air defence systems and Russian combat troops” were sighted, US Gen Philip Breedlove said.

Russia’s defence ministry denied that its troops were in eastern Ukraine to help pro-Russian separatists there. However, the rebels have admitted being helped by “volunteers” from Russia.
[…]
Nato’s Supreme Commander in Europe General Philip Breedlove has confirmed that over the past two days, Nato has seen columns of Russian armour, artillery and crucially – combat troops – entering Ukraine.
[…]
General Breedlove also confirmed that Nato believes Russia is deploying nuclear-capable weapons to Crimea – a reference to reports that Russia is deploying short-range Iskander ballistic missiles there that could potentially be equipped with nuclear warheads.

The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) has reported seeing unmarked convoys in the region in recent days.

 
Russia can deny it all they want, but once tanks show up in bulk, it’s pretty clear where they’re coming from. In contrast, whatever claims Russia’s government has made about Western military assistance to the Ukrainian government — which has been negligible as far as we’re publicly aware — only one side of the conflict is being given tanks and heavy weapons systems by outside parties.

As a bonus, for this story, I’ve produced a new eastern Ukraine map.

November 12, 2014 map of the Eastern Ukraine conflict and related areas. Produced by Arsenal For Democracy from various data sources (more info) and the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine.

November 12, 2014 map of the Eastern Ukraine conflict and related areas. Produced by Arsenal For Democracy from various data sources (more info) and the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine.

On eastern Ukraine, Putin breaks out “statehood” word

In perhaps his least helpful utterance to date, Vladimir Putin has gone on TV and apparently pitched the idea of splitting up Ukraine. So much for defusing tensions. From the Washington Post:

Seeming to be searching for the right word during a prerecorded television interview, Russian President Vladimir Putin suggested Sunday that one of the issues to be resolved in the Ukrainian conflict is “statehood” for the eastern regions now controlled by separatists.

 
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That’s a new idea, and if he meant it, it would raise the stakes considerably in the nearly 10-month-old Ukrainian crisis.
[…]
As Putin’s interview was being broadcast, Dmitry Peskov, the presidential spokesman, went into damage-control mode, saying that Putin was calling for dialogue, not sovereignty for the region, when he urged “substantive, meaningful negotiations” on questions concerning the “political organization of society and statehood in southeast Ukraine.”

Putin has said repeatedly that he does not favor the breakup of Ukraine — though Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine in March — but wants greater autonomy for the east.

 
It’s as if the President of Russia actually got on TV and tried to pitch reverse-engineering this historically-dubious propaganda map as a legitimate policy proposal:

Russian propaganda map purporting to show the creation of a Ukrainian nation by Russia and the USSR.

Russian propaganda map purporting to show the creation of a Ukrainian nation by Russia and the USSR.

Believing that version of events in the history of Ukrainian nationalism and identity doesn’t make it true. Nor does ignoring consistently rising support in Russian-speaking areas of Ukraine — even the supposedly secessionist ones — for a post-Soviet, unified Ukrainian identity.

But considering the latest “not-RussianRussian invasion at Novoazovsk are suddenly identifying themselves as the army of “Novorossiya” — a Russian Empire region name for southern Ukraine, which Putin himself brought back into the modern public discourse in a TV interview back in April — I suppose this is not a new development. It also gives a sense of just how much more of the country Putin might be aiming to seize from Ukraine, with this “statehood” talk.

Novorossiya/New Russia in the Russian Empire in 1897. (Credit: Dim Grits - Wikimedia)

Novorossiya/New Russia in the Russian Empire in 1897. (Credit: Dim Grits – Wikimedia)

So, is breaking up the country (and pretending the resulting eastern state, if not annexed immediately like Crimea, wouldn’t be a breakaway Russian puppet-state like the other Near Abroad breakaway republics) the new plan on Ukraine, under the guise of “statehood”? Read more

Russian TV: Thousands of Russians have fought in E. Ukraine this year

After months of increasingly absurd denials that there were Russian Federation citizens fighting in eastern Ukraine, we appear to have confirmation that several thousand have been rotating in and out over the past several months. The admission, however, continued to insist that these Russian fighters were actually retired military veterans and “vacationing” active duty troops:

“There are active soldiers fighting among us who preferred to spend their vacation not on the beach, but with us, among their brothers, who are fighting for their freedom,” Aleksandr Zakharchenko, a rebel commander and the prime minister of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic, said in an interview on Russian state-run television.

Mr. Zakharchenko said that between 3,000 and 4,000 Russians had fought in the separatist ranks since the conflict erupted in the spring.

That assertion evaded the issue of direct Russian involvement by painting the soldiers as volunteers. It suggests, however, that Moscow still seeks to organize and to some extent control a force that could be operated at arm’s length with a backbone of local participation.

Mr. Zakharchenko, who says he has Ukrainian citizenship, took over as prime minister of the Donetsk People’s Republic this month, replacing Alexandr Borodai, a Russian. Several other Russians who had figured prominently in the rebel ranks, including the military commander Igor Strelkov, have also dropped from sight in recent weeks.

In the interview with the official satellite channel Rossiya 24, Mr. Zakharchenko said that many former professional Russian soldiers had come to Ukraine as volunteers, out of a sense of duty.

“There were about 3,000 or 4,000 of them in our ranks,” Mr. Zakharchenko said. “Many of them have gone home, but the majority have remained here. Unfortunately, some have been killed.”

 
This explanation probably became necessary given the recent capture of uniformed Russian Federation soldiers in Ukraine, plus the mounting number of combat deaths of Russians in Ukraine and the repeated social media slip-up revealing Russian soldiers to be working in Ukraine. The prior explanation has been that any such Russian Federation troops had accidentally crossed the border after becoming lost, which was becoming a pretty hard line to swallow, even for the most credulous observers.

This new admission also may be an effort to deflect some attention from other reports of incursions or invasions. In addition to these so-called volunteers, photos released by NATO today showed what they said were mobile Russian Federation artillery batteries arrayed in “firing position” inside Ukraine. This is an escalation from a month ago when such artillery units were allegedly firing upon Ukrainian military targets from across the Russian border.

Ukraine’s government, NATO, and journalists on the ground also reported seeing heavily armored columns of an estimated 1,000 troops crossing the Russian-Ukrainian border into Novoazovsk on the Sea of Azov coast (see below), as the Ukrainian Army fell back to — and dug in around — Mariupol and Kiev announced the emergency resumption of mandatory conscription.

Donetsk Oblast: Novoazovsk and Mariupol on the Sea of Azov near the Russian border.

Donetsk Oblast: Novoazovsk and Mariupol on the Sea of Azov near the Russian border. Click link to navigate.

See also our freshly updated Ukraine Crisis Map for wider area context.