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)

Is Odessa the next target of Russia’s information war?

The footage and photos coming out of (the predominantly Russian, major Black Sea port city of) Odessa over the weekend are pretty crazy.

A few weeks after Putin referred to Odessa as historically Russian, pro-Russian protests began in the city, leading to fights with Ukrainian nationalists, as police stood by and watched. Dozens were killed in the Friday clashes and the transitional national government in Kiev began intervening to kick the Odessa’s police force into doing its job.

These deaths now appear to have been the result of a bad combination of Russian-speaking armed protesters and frustrated, young Ukrainian nationalists on parade for unity (en route to a soccer game) amid increasing military tensions in the eastern part of Ukraine. Shots were fired at the unity rally, and the parade participants fought back. Barricades were put up by the pro-separatist side and nationalists began throwing bricks at them. A government building where some of the Russians were barricaded caught fire, resulting in most of the deaths.

Today, approximately 1,300 pro-Russian activists in Odessa arrived at a police detention center to “liberate” about 70 of their comrades arrested during the Friday protests.

The cycle we have seen previously in pro-Russian breakaway zones of other countries, and again this year in Crimea and the three “separatist” eastern oblasts, has been: Russian speakers begin agitating against the national government, leading to violent clashes or claims of being threatened, followed by Russian special forces arriving to stir up more trouble and secure military sites, concluding with Russia “considering” how to respond to protect “innocent” people. And then Russia usually invades and takes control. This system of information war creates a context and narrative “justifying” Russian intervention (a practice the U.S. is not above).

Thus, Russian Ukrainian deaths in Odessa may open a new front in Vladimir Putin’s drive to retake all of “New Russia” from the the country’s imperial days. If successful, such an annexation would link the Russian Federation overland, through Donetsk and all of the southern coast of Ukraine, to Russian-occupied Crimea and Russian-occupied Transdniestria in neighboring Moldova.

Ukraine could find itself suddenly landlocked after nearly a century of being identified strongly with the Black Sea coast and Black Sea naval activities, much like naval power Austria-Hungary suddenly losing its coasts and ships at the end of 1918, when World War I ended.

Putin highlights Russian enclave in Moldova

In a statement from the Russian presidency summarizing a call to President Obama today, Russia highlighted the Russian-dominated Transdniestria as an area of concern for Russia right now (much like Crimea was an area of concern right before they invaded it). NYT:

The Kremlin, in its statement, also drew attention to Ukraine’s blockade of Transnistria, a breakaway, pro-Russian region of Moldova, that has relied on land access through Ukraine for crucial imports.

The Kremlin said the blockade is causing “significant complication of the living conditions of people in the region” impeding their mobility and economic activity and urging negotiations.

This will fuel more speculation in line with the recent suggestion by NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, U.S. Air Force General Philip Breedlove that the Russian Army may be positioning itself for another intervention on the other side of Ukraine and Crimea, in the Transdniestria region of Moldova.

For a complete background dossier on the Transdniestria/Moldova situation, see “Get to know a geopolitical flashpoint: Moldova”.

Get to know a geopolitical flashpoint: Moldova

A Russian-dominated breakaway region of another former Soviet Republic, just up the river from the Black Sea and a short hop from Crimea, has formally requested the Russian Federation follow up on its Crimea annexation by doing the same there.

Although many Western observers initially thought the continuing buildup of Russian troops near Eastern Ukraine was intended for a possible invasion of Eastern Ukraine, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, U.S. Air Force General Philip Breedlove, said today that he is worried it may in fact be the Russian Army positioning itself for another intervention on the other side of Ukraine and Crimea, in the Transdniestria region of Moldova.

A month ago I would have said that was nonsense — and it still feels strategically and logistically less likely than the Crimea takeover — but a month ago, few were expecting such a brazen seizure of Crimea by the Russian Federation. So with that in mind, I thought it would be a good time to expand upon my “Beginner’s Guide to the Post-Soviet ‘Near Abroad'” prepare some research on Transdniestria and Moldova.
The landlocked Eastern European country of Moldova is wedged between southwestern Ukraine and northeastern Romania. The predominant language is Moldovan, which is effectively the same language as Romanian and since 1989 has used the Roman alphabet instead of the Cyrillic alphabet (previously enforced by Moscow). The country has been independent since 1991 when the Soviet Union ended, but it changed hands and was carved up many times in the past 500 years. At various points, parts of the country were ruled by the Ottomans, the Romanians, the Lithuanians, the Polish, the Ukrainians, the Russian Empire, and the Soviet Union.

The borders have also changed quite a few times in that time and Moldova has struggled to find its geographical place in the region. Part of the country had long been a Russian Empire border zone (on the edge of Ukraine) and was absorbed into Soviet Ukraine and the Soviet Union right after World War I, when the Russian Empire collapsed and was replaced by the communist government. The rest of the country was part of Romania during the interwar years. After World War II, the parts of what are now Moldova today were fused together into a Moldovan Soviet Socialist Republic, one of the smaller of the USSR’s member republics.

So, as you can imagine, by the end of the 1980s and start of the 1990s, things were pretty confusing and jumbled. There wasn’t a clearly defined national identity because there wasn’t even a clearly defined historical area or legacy of self-rule. It was possible that Moldova might even try to rejoin Romania, which has the most in common with the bulk of the country and had previously controlled it several times. After late 1989, when Romania’s totalitarian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu had been executed, it seemed to Moldovan nationalists like a good escape route from Soviet/Russian domination, which had not yet ended.

This plan, unfortunately, didn’t sit well with the longstanding Russian population from the other side of the Dniester River, the zone that had not been part of Romania during the interwar years (having been almost immediately brought into the Soviet Union by 1924). This was a place that had been a militarized frontier of the Russian Empire since 1793 and had suffered greatly under Axis-Romanian occupation during World War II — experiencing forced Romanianization and the murders of over 100,000 Romanian and Ukrainian Jews in Axis concentration camps built in the region.

This geographical area, the narrow strip of land between the Dniester River and the Ukrainian border, effectively Moldova’s Russianized East Bank (and a few communities on the Moldovan side of the river), is known in English as the Trans-Dniester region or Transdniestria/Transnistria and other variants adapted from the Romanian point-of-reference to “the area across the Dniester.”

The bulk of the rest of Moldova, the Dniester’s West Bank, is the non-Russian-speaking area referred to as “Bessarabia” — which has changed hands far more often than Transdniestria. By the early 1990s, Transdniestria’s Russian population, despite now being separated from the Russian Soviet Federal Republic by the entirety of a newly independent Ukraine, still saw itself as the Western-most outpost of historical Russia, and felt very threatened by the pro-Romanian nationalism of the Moldovan independence movement that had broken the country away from the Soviet Union.

They promptly declared independence from Moldova as the USSR was breaking up and — after some initial skirmishes in the first politically chaotic months — the new Moldovan military tried to invade the Transdniestria region.

Below: The current flag of the breakaway region.

Complicating matters was the giant, heavily armed elephant in the room: The fact that the Soviet Union’s 14th Army had been stationed in eastern Moldova (Transdniestria) at the time of independence and was assigned to Russia, rather than Moldova, when the former Soviet states were divvying up the old USSR’s Army and Navy.
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