Their Eyes Were Watching Vlad

Occasionally, representatives of Germany’s Left party (Die Linke) will complain about being tagged as the successors to East Germany’s communist party. Well.

As part of the German parliament’s debate about the budget and foreign police, Gregor Gysi, parliamentary leader of Die Linke, spoke out forcefully against further sanctions against Russia. He called them “absolutely counterproductive.” He added that they provoked Russian countermeasures and hurt the economy. Rational policy, in his view, would be to lift the sanctions immediately.

Not to be outdone, Sara Wagenknecht, Gysi’s first deputy, said that economic warfare with Russia was damaging and “playing with fire.” She added that NATO maneuvers and EU sanctions were making the implementation of a ceasefire in Ukraine difficult.

Russia and the Russian government are, of course, utterly blameless in all of these events.

Not coincidentally, the party’s history as recounted on its English-language web site begins in 2007. If I had their background as the unreformed heirs to the Kremlin’s stooges, I’d keep it off the web site, too.

It’s not like this was a surprise

Or, why reading David Remnick is nearly always a good idea:

I spoke with Georgy Kasianov, the head of the Academy of Science’s department of contemporary Ukrainian history and politics, in Kiev. “It’s a war,” he said. “The Russian troops are quite openly out on the streets [in Crimea], capturing public buildings and military outposts. And it’s likely all a part of a larger plan for other places: Odessa, Nikolayev, Kherson. And they’ll use the same technique. Some Russian-speaking citizens will appear, put up a Russian flag, and make appeals that they want help and referendums, and so on.” This is already happening in Donetsk and Kharkov.

“They are doing this like it is a commonplace,” Kasianov went on. “I can’t speak for four million people, but clearly everyone in Kiev is against this. But the Ukrainian leadership is absolutely helpless. The Army is not ready for this. And, after the violence in Kiev, the special forces are disoriented.”

That’s from March 1.

Overtaken by events

The draft blog post said to watch out for funny business in Melitopol and Mariupol, Ukraine. Those are the largest settlements along the coast between Russia and the Crimean peninsula, and sit astride the road that runs from Rostov-on-the-Don and the Crimea. Mariupol is the second-largest city in the Donetsk region, with a population of nearly half a million. Melitopol is also a crossroads: east to Russia, south to the Crimea, north to Zaporizhia and west to Kherson.

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s daily summary noted:

By early evening there were reports of skirmishes between pro-Russia and pro-Ukraine groups in Kharkiv, a tense standoff in Zaporizhia, and the occupation by pro-Russian activists of local government buildings in Makiyivka and Mariupol. Pro-Russian activists were also reportedly moving on the Security Service building in Odessa.

So let’s go with a quick scoreboard from this weekend and last instead.

Kharkiv: occupation attempt repulsed
Zaporizhia: tense standoff
Kramotorsk: buildings occupied
Druzhkivka: buildings occupied
Yenakijeve: buildings occupied
Makiyivka: buildings occupied
Mariupol: buildings occupied
Luhansk: buildings occupied
Donetsk: buildings occupied
Slovyansk: buildings occupied
Mykolaiv: occupation attempt repulsed
Odessa: occupation attempt repulsed
Krasny Lyman: disturbances

The buildings that are being occupied are local city halls, police stations and administrative buildings. That most definitely includes any local arsenals.

This weekend has also seen the return of the “little green men,” so called during the occupation of the Crimea because their origins are so mysterious that they must be from Mars. Never mind that they wear Russian uniforms sans insignia, have equipment issued to Russian armed services, and use Russian words that are not generally used by Russian-speaking persons who live in Ukraine.

Ukraine’s acting president has not minced words. In a live televised address, Oleksandr Turchynov spoke of

war that is being waged against Ukraine by the Russian Federation. The aggressor has not stopped and continues to organize disorders in eastern Ukraine.

This is not a war between Ukrainians. This is an artificially created situation of confrontation aimed at weakening and destroying Ukraine itself.

He also said that a large-scale counter-operation would begin Monday morning. Stay tuned.

Looking back at last month’s guide to revisiting the 1930s, further east:

Kharkiv, Donetsk: Sudetenland. Some real tension, mostly trumped up and stage-managed confrontations. ((Check.)) Pleas for “protection” from some parts of a particular nationality to the outside power. ((Check.)) Not fooling anyone. ((Check.)) In contrast to then, Kiev would try to defend the frontier region militarily. ((Check, as of April 14.)) (The great powers will not intervene, should it come to that.) ((Check.)) Whether that defense would succeed is rather an important question. There’s not a major defensible barrier until the Dniepr. Speaking of which…

Dnepropetrovsk, Zaporizhia: Poland. The great powers would not be able to overlook the dismemberment of a major European state. They wouldn’t be able to stop it, either.

Zaporizhia hasn’t seen much in the way of disturbances. Yet.

Also: Toomas Hendrik Ilves noted on Twitter, “After these several weeks, Europe’s M-F, 9-5 foreign policy establishment might perhaps recognise what’s happening next door weekends too.” Maybe all of the little green men and their associated crowds have day jobs, or maybe the powers-that-be on Mars have noticed that Saturday is not a big day for news, and are timing their operations accordingly. It’s not likely that they read John Scalzi’s blog, but he makes a point concerning publicity and next weekend:

But of all the Saturdays in all of the calendar year, the very worst possible Saturday to announce anything is the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter. Because it’s the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter, that’s why — the Saturday sandwiched between two major religious holidays, which means the “weekend” that week starts on Thursday and Sunday’s news cycle is swamped by the most important Christian holiday of the year — Christmas is noisier for longer, but Easter is concentrated. If you’re the Pope, Easter Sunday is great for you, news wise. If you’re not the Pope, not. …
If I were a crooked politician who had been caught murdering kittens while masturbating to a picture of Joseph Stalin, then the day I would choose to have that news go out into the world would be the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter.

That Western and Orthodox Easter align this year makes the news gap even larger. People in the wider world will not be paying attention next weekend. Don’t be surprised if the little green men are very active indeed.

Old habits die hard

Occasionally, representatives of Germany’s Left party (Die Linke) will complain about being tagged as the successors to East Germany’s communist party. Well.

Yesterday, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe voted to strip the Russian delegation to that body of its voting privileges for the rest of 2014, as a reaction to Russia’s annexation of the Crimea. The overall vote was 145 in favor of revoking the Russians parliamentarians’ votes and 21 against, with 22 abstentions.

The German delegation voted 5-1 to revoke, with Yes votes coming from a Green, two Christian Democrats and two Social Democrats. The sole No vote? From a Left parliamentarian. Because Moscow, I suppose.

Continue reading

Right on schedule

Last night, I noted that staged takeovers of local government buildings in eastern Ukraine are

one of the shoes that everyone keeping track of the crisis has been expecting to drop (Odessa and the region that was known in the 19th century as “New Russia” is another).

This morning, Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe reports:

RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service quotes local media as saying around 100 pro-Russians attempting to surround a government administration building in the southern city of Mykolaiv were thwarted after police moved in late last night. There were several injuries in the ensuing clashes, which also pitted the pro-Moscow ranks against members of a pro-Ukrainian group. (From their liveblog 0923, 8 April 2014. Here’s the original report in Ukrainian.)

Mykolaiv is a city of about a half million people, a major shipbuilding center about halfway between the Crimea and Odessa, along the main road between the two.


View Larger Map

Let’s hope the police and local authorities in Kherson are equally loyal to Ukraine, and equally alert.

Odessa, of course, is the real prize of the southwest, and not just for the nightlife or the film nostalgia. Odessa is also just a good day’s bicycle ride from breakaway Transnistria. These lands were conquered by the Russian Empire in the late 18th century, somewhat after the American Revolution broke but before the French. The Crimean Khanate had left them sparsely settled, and homesteading in “New Russia,” as the region was known, was a major development of the 19th century. Before World War II, it was a significant area of Jewish settlement. In short, the pretexts are there, if Russian forces want to meddle.

The second act of Ukraine’s test has only just begun.

Stress test

Reports from eastern Ukraine that pro-Russia (perhaps one should write pro-Putin or pro-annexation) protesters have seized local government buildings in Donetsk, Kharkiv and Luhansk. The protesters in Kharkiv seem to have been driven back. In Luhansk, they seized weapons from a local arsenal and set up barriers in the main streets; Ukrainian police have sealed off access to the town. (As well they might. Parts of Luhansk are less than 10km from the Russian border.)

In Donetsk, they have seized an administration building, proclaimed a “People’s Republic of Donetsk,” called for a referendum on sovereignty on May 11, and asked for Russian troops to come as “temporary peacekeepers.” Temporary until another annexation treaty could be printed out, one presumes.

Here is how the Russian Foreign Ministry reacted to these developments:

“If the irresponsible attitude toward the fate of the country, the fate of their own people, on behalf of the political forces that call themselves the Ukrainian government were to continue, Ukraine would inevitably face ever new difficulties and crises,” ministry spokesman Aleksandr Lukashevich said today. “Enough finger-pointing at Russia — blaming it for all the troubles of today’s Ukraine. The Ukrainian people need to hear from Kyiv clear answers to all questions. It is time to listen to these legitimate demands.” (As reported by the Radio Free Europe live blog at 1911 today, Kyiv time.)

Key phrases to note: “the political forces that call themselves the Ukrainian government” and “legitimate demands.” With these words, Moscow is again signalling that it does not recognize the interim Ukrainian government as legitimate. The Kremlin still regards Viktor Yanukovych as president of Ukraine, never mind that he now has about as much chance of holding that office as I do. As for “legitimate demands,” if you — as a government — consider someone who last won 4% of the vote the legitimate spokesperson of a region (as Russia did with Crimea), that is a very elastic reading of the word “legitimate.”

(As I write, the channel “Kharkov antimaidan” on ustream.tv is broadcasting live from the square in front of the administrative building in Kharkiv. It’s about 30 minutes past midnight, local time, and a great many people are milling about on the square. My Russian is not good enough to follow the narration of the POV broadcaster. Sometimes living in the future, as we do now, seems surreal.)

This is one of the shoes that everyone keeping track of the crisis has been expecting to drop (Odessa and the region that was known in the 19th century as “New Russia” is another). Not quite a month ago, I wrote that if Crimea was the Anschluss, the Kharkiv, Donetsk and eastern Ukraine are the Sudetenland.

Here’s my checklist from last month:

Some real tension, ((check)) mostly trumped up and stage-managed confrontations ((check)). Pleas for “protection” from some parts of a particular nationality to the outside power ((check)). Not fooling anyone ((check)). In contrast to then, Kiev would try to defend the frontier region militarily.

So that’s where we are now.

Ukraine’s acting president canceled a visit to Lithuania and described the eastern Ukraine occupations and unrests as “the second wave in Russia’s special operation against Ukraine.” US Secretary of State John Kerry told Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that the actions did not appear “spontaneous.” The White House has suggested there is “strong evidence” that some of the pro-Moscow protesters “were paid and not local residents.” The Moscow Times reminds readers that ethnic Ukrainians account for 56.9% of the population in the Donetsk region, 70.7% in the Kharkiv region and 58% in the Luhansk region. (Caveats about ethnic identification in that part of the world duly noted.)

This is a very serious stress test both for Ukraine’s interim government — and don’t forget, they are preparing for a presidential election in less than two months — and for the European state system as it is presently constituted.

How much of a revisionist power has Putin’s Russia become? That’s the most important question hanging over Europe right now, and precious few people know the answer. If indeed anyone at all knows.

The pretexts are all there. Will the Russian government and armed forces take them up and further dismantle a European state?

Territorial integrity

The UN General Assembly declares the Crimean referendum invalid, 100-11.

Russia absorbing Crimea will be the first time since 1945 that a country other than Israel has taken over a part of a neighbouring state and formally annexed it, other than colonial outposts. Some people are maybe not appreciating what a break with international norms that is.

A few of those annexations of colonies were a lot more brutal affairs than Crimea: Ogaden, East Timor, Western Sahara. It’s still a very short list. Iraq and Kuwait was very briefly an exception and was supposed to once and for all end that sort of thing (and end history).

Crimea: meet the family

Here’s something interesting: the pro-Russian paramilitary leader in the Crimea is the son of the pro-Russian paramilitary leader in Transnistria.

As that empire was pushed out of Eastern Europe, Aksyonov’s father, Valery, became the leader of a group called the Russian Community of Northern Moldova, which campaigned for the rights of ethnic Russians in a country ruled by the Moldovan majority. In 1990, the ethnic tensions in that country erupted into war, and the Russian army came to the rescue of paramilitary groups fighting the forces of the Moldovan government. Two years later, the conflict ended with the de facto secession of a breakaway state called Transnistria, a sliver of land that runs along the Dniestr River.

Today, Transnistria is still a frozen conflict zone on the map of Europe – and a state that Aksyonov reveres. Its independence is not recognized by any member of the United Nations, including Russia. It is the only part of Europe that still uses the insignia of the Soviet Union, and its economy imposes Soviet-style subsistence living on the masses while the politically-connected elite benefit from its unique black market. As an unrecognized state unbound by international law, its customs points are a clearinghouse for contraband, including tobacco, guns and counterfeit liquor. But Aksyonov sees it as a place to be emulated. “Transnistria is a bastion of Russian culture inside Moldova,” he says. “They wanted to preserve their identity. And I fully support them, because I know what kind of pressures they faced.”

Who knew frozen conflicts could be a family business? Of course, “family” and “business” are usually very ordinary words that can take on a very different significance.

He remembers Aksyonov in the 1990s as a member of a criminal syndicate called Salem, which was named for the brand of contraband cigarettes they imported and dealt in bulk. (Other accounts claim the group was named for the cafe where they hung out.) “Aksyonov was a capo for them, an enforcer,” says Los. “He had a group of ten guys that would go around collecting money.” Aksyonov’s nickname in the local underworld, says Los, was the Goblin. “Every gangster had a nickname. I was called Horns because of my surname.” (Translated from Russian, the word los means moose or elk.)

In Crimea, it looks like he’s starting with the banks. Of course. Was ist ein Einbruch in eine Bank gegen die Gründung einer Bank? I do think this fits with my idea that this is about post-Soviets vs. pre-Europeans.

Update: He may have just added two gas companies. Nothing succeeds like success.

Ukraine: it’s a thing

This piece of Galrahn’s has a great title: US Soft Power in Ukraine is Missing Hard Power’s Escalation Control. It then wanders off into generic stuff about how Obama is lacking resolve and a succession of supposed military options, all of which would lead to war with Russia.

But if we were to stick with the title, we might learn something. “Soft power” – influence, the EU as a magnet, that stuff – is very hard to “calibrate” precisely because it deals in influence over people rather than physical force. People may not be impressed for years, but then change their minds and hugely over-deliver. The participation that makes it important also makes it very difficult to use as an instrument of policy. Classical theories of innovation diffusion tell us that “reinvention”, the degree to which users make innovations their own, is a critical factor in whether this or that idea reaches enough early adopters to hit the inflection point into mass adoption. As a result, not only does it work far better than anyone expects when it works, it also goes to new and unpredictable places nobody expects.

Fair enough. It is obviously true that US and European soft power played a role in Euromaidan. They called it Euromaidan, after all. But I have been writing so far in the voice of someone who imagines they controlled the situation, explaining why they failed to control it. Saying that soft power lacks escalation control is another way of saying that you underestimated the agency of Ukrainians. This theme runs through the whole story.

Vladimir Putin, famously, doesn’t believe it’s a nation and openly treats it as a colonial entity. The US imagines that some National Endowment for Democracy money and advice will solve everything in the way they would like it to be solved. The EU sees it as a fairly cynical bargaining process between Yanukovych and Yulia Tymoshenko and wouldn’t have minded Yanukovych sticking around even after all the shooting. Yanukovych, for his part, clearly didn’t think of Ukraine as a nation; he thought he owned it.

Operationally, this was meant to work like so. The conflict could be presented as a divide between (ex-Polish) western Ukrainians and (ex-Soviet) eastern ones. Experts differ. This would permit people to see it as not a proper nation, a conflict that had to be managed, or alternatively a Soviet survival that needed protecting from the IMF. At street level, this would show up as a pro-Yanuk movement big enough to be a potential political majority. But Yanuk was let down by the failure of the supposed “pro-Russian East” to show up. He was counting on it and he may have reassured Vladislav Surkov, Putin’s very influential PR expert, that it was coming when Surkov came to see him.

The problem was, though, that the “pro-Russian east” had already been a disappointment in 2004, and it was even weaker this time. Research on the ground suggests that the idea of a geographical split is misleading – the political divide is generational, and eastern Ukrainian identity does not signal support for Russia and still less for Yanuk. There is even some evidence that the linguistic picture has changed since 2004, with more people, especially young people, opting to speak Ukrainian and to adopt such an identity. This could be described as the transition from a post-Soviet to a pre-European identity. We might make a little leap of faith and argue that the EU missed this too, and the evidence is that Tymoshenko’s polls are horrible.

If the pro-Russian east didn’t show up, who did? There was a big surprise about Ukraine, and there was a big non-surprise. The surprise was the appeal of the European Union as an ideal – who expected that? – and the non-surprise was the emotional force of nationalism. This brings me to Tuesday’s standoff at Belbek airfield, Sevastopol, where Ukrainian Colonel Yuri Mamchuk led an unarmed march of the 204th Aviation Brigade’s ground crew to assert their right to access the runway and maintain the 40 or so MiG-29 aircraft there. You can watch the confrontation, with subtitles, below:

But I prefer this photo, which reminds me of Ilya Repin, perhaps a painting entitled Colonel Mamchuk Defies the Rascally Cossacks:

The imagery here is very important – the red banner is the colours of the Soviet unit whose traditions the 204th inherited, which had no fewer than six Heroes of the Soviet Union. The Ukrainians have both appropriated the Second World War heritage, and also posed the question as to who looks like the Germans here. It’s also crucial to note that the people Mamchuk led up to the Russian sentries will have been the cooks and clerks and avionics technicians you need to make an air force work, not some sort of commando elite. This is, I think, what nationhood looks like.

And as a piece of strategic nonviolence, it came close to scuppering the whole Russian plan or non-plan in the Crimea. If the Ukrainians got to use the airfield, they could resupply and indeed relieve their garrisons there. If they could fly their planes, they would evidently discredit any Russian claim to control the air. Starving them out would no longer be an option. Having both Russian and Ukrainian forces present would be very much like the Crimea pre-revolution, and therefore something close to the status quo. The degree to which Russian and Ukrainian forces coexisted there until this month is shown by the fact the 204th is a counter-air wing with the dogfighter variant of the MiG-29, and the Russian air wing up the road is a strike force with the Su-24 bomber. The Ukrainians essentially provided the Black Sea Fleet’s air defence. (SO AWKWARD.)

The upshot was a compromise – the Ukrainians didn’t get to reoccupy the airfield, but they did get to station people there. But this is progress towards the status quo. And today, this Daily Mirror piece mentions that the Ukrainian navy’s helicopters are active in Crimea and that the Mirror journalist saw one resupply the garrison he visited. If this is true, the Ukrainians can hold out a long time.

On Tuesday, both Putin’s odd self-contradictory statement and Kerry’s words in Kyiv were united in tone; they both seemed huffy, calling for OSCE monitors to check on the kids-on-lawn situation. Two old men who found they controlled the situation much less than they thought. It is worth pointing out that historically, Crimeans have usually demanded autonomy or even independence, not integration in Russia.

Sources I used beyond the ones linked in the text:

https://twitter.com/TheWarRoom_Tom/status/441248164906303488

https://twitter.com/TheWarRoom_Tom/status/441248640531980288

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/ukraine/10679161/Ukraines-hero-colonel-insists-he-was-just-doing-his-duty.html

http://www.craigmurray.org.uk/archives/2014/03/putins-victorious-defeat/

http://seansrussiablog.org/2014/03/02/ukrainian-civil-war-wasnt/

http://inmoscowsshadows.wordpress.com/2014/03/02/putins-pyrrhic-crimea-campaign/

http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/newsdesk/2014/03/who-will-protect-the-crimean-tatars.html?utm_source=www&utm_medium=tw&utm_campaign=20140306

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/world/tide-of-opinion-turns-against-russia-in-ukraines-east/article17293095/#dashboard/follows/

http://eng.kremlin.ru/news/6763

http://zik.ua/en/news/2014/03/05/journalists_recognize_fsb_colonel_posing_as_crimea_selfdefence_commander_467743

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/ukraine/10670547/Ukraine-crisis-Polite-people-leading-the-silent-invasion-of-the-Crimea.html

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/feb/28/ukraine-this-is-no-second-cold-war

https://russiamil.wordpress.com/2014/03/06/the-role-of-the-black-sea-fleet-in-russian-naval-strategy/

http://www.sueddeutsche.de/politik/krise-in-der-ukraine-die-fuenf-tage-herrschaft-des-volksgouverneurs-gubarew-1.1907550

http://www.edmundconway.com/2014/03/how-britain-became-russias-banker-of-choice-and-what-that-means-for-sanctions/