The Donbas war marks a turning point in Russian and modern European history.
In a recent post, a long-standing friend of Ukraine, Arkady Babchenko, made a final diagnosis of Russian society, pointing out that even some members of Russia’s liberal intelligentsia do not understand what the invasion of the Donbas means for their country.
“Quite often, you run into people saying… well, it’s just another kind of petty war in a seemingly endless series – Chechnya, Georgia, Transnistria, Afghanistan. One’s bigger, one’s smaller. Yes, we’re wrong, but it’s not the third world war, is it? No, I say. It’s not just another petty war. It’s a bifurcation point, where we divide and go our separate ways. The invasion was a critical moment. It was the most important event to take place in Russia after 1991. But, Russians have failed to understand its importance.” says Arkady.
So, in order to clarify how the invasion of Ukraine turned out to be the turning point for Russia, I will develop Arkady’s views and and show why the annexation of Crimea and the occupation of the Donbas have become unprecedented events in the history of post-Soviet Russia, independent Ukraine and the post-war world as a whole.
- Let’s start with the simplest and most obvious fact: the “Donbas” scenario began with the annexation of Crimea, i.e. it was the first time since the Second World War that a country in Europe annexed part of another sovereign state. This was done officially, by integrating a territory of another country into its state. No country or leader has committed such a deed since Hitler, and that is a historical fact. By annexing Crimea and attempting to annex the Donbas, the Kremlin violated all the recognized borders in Europe, the entire system of international guarantees and treaties that existed in the world, as well as world order as such.
- The Donbas invasion is unprecedented in the modern world, the beginning of a war for which there are no factual grounds. All conflicts involving foreign intervention were launched for a reason even if such interventions were not entirely unlawful or completely unjustified. For example, bloody wars were sarted in the Balkans, followed by genocide on both sides. The initiator of these wars was Slobodan Milosevic, but, nevertheless, even in the Kosovo conflict both the Serbs and the Albanians declared that genocide had been perpetrated against entire villages, reporting about mass killings, rape and abuse. These facts were not just alleged reports about “crucified children”, but were corroborated by concrete evidence. I do not justify the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999 because I believe this was unlawful, short-sighted and just plain brutal. No one will deny that Milosevic launched a genocide campaign against Kosovo Albanians that resulted in hundreds of deaths. In this case, foreign intervention would have been theoretically justified by the fact that people were dying in Kosovo (which certainly does not justify the death of innocent Serbians in the bombings). In Syria, Bashar al-Assad destroyed entire regions where his opponents lived. Nagorno-Karabakh is another example of a territorial dispute that developed into an ethnic conflict. Only in the case of the Donbas has foreign military intervention in a sovereign state been completely built on lies. There were no “concrete reasons” – no genocides, no massacres targeting different minorities, no concentration camps, no cases of torture or abuse, etc. – in eastern Ukraine; there was only Kremlin propaganda. There were no deaths until Russian soldiers appeared… oh, but wait, there were no Russians in the region, were there! Such false pretexts for invading a foreign country were only used by Hitler’s Germany.
- In recent history, when the US or NATO has intervened in certain countries, such military interventions have never been denied, and they have certainly not taken place in Europe or any other developed country. It is impossible to imagine tanks moving from Washington state towards the Canadian border, or unmarked American soldiers capturing Vancouver and torturing its inhabitants, calling them “fascists” to justify the United States firing Grads on Canadian cities, but declaring that there’s a “civil war” raging in Canada and “we’re not at all there”! Such baseness, cynicism and perversion seem impossible in this day and age. Therefore, the Donbas war stands out dramatically in comparison with other modern military conflicts.
- The Donbas war is accompanied by cynicism and dishonesty on the part of the aggressor country. The war in the Middle East presents a more ambiguous situation, and non-specialists may find it difficult to understand what is actually happening because of territorial remoteness, a different language and a different culture. Ukrainians and Russians have always had close ties and language has never been an obstacle. But, since the beginning of the war, parents have repudiated their children, brothers – their sisters, wives – their husbands to please the Kremlin. Despite ample opportunities to learn the truth, Russians have deliberately chosen to believe the Kremlin’s lies. They do not hide their cynicism, stating directly: “It really doesn’t matter what’s happening over there as long as it’s good for us!” Accordingly, Russian society has reached the height of moral degradation, which will eventually lead to irreversible consequences.
- The Donbas war has destroyed all the values that the Russian state has been building and clinging to in the past few years. Without an attractive model for economic development or a bright scenario for the future or even a strong ideology (as in the Soviet Union), in 2011-2012 Putin’s regime created a Russia of “lesser evil”. The waves of protest faded largely due to the Kremlin’s active promotion of “a peaceful sky over our heads” as a value beyond and above freedom and the rule of law. The legitimacy of Putin’s regime was justified by the fact that it protected the “peace and tranquility of its citizens” from “revolution, blood, chaos, anarchy and discord”. I personally witnessed how many people with very democratic views abandoned the protest movement at the time only because peace and happiness were more precious to them. The legitimacy of different military and security services were built on the fact that the FSB was not a repressive body (as opposed to the Soviet KGB), but a structure for combating terrorism. However, due to the Donbas invasion, all these values were not just destroyed, but replaced by completely opposite ones. Instead of preserving “a peaceful sky”, Russia has brought war, chaos and death to a peaceful region inhabited by Ukrainians, albeit predominantly Russian-speaking. Instead of fighting against terrorists, the Kremlin has created, trained and armed terrorists and insurgents, and turned them into heroes with the help of propaganda. Instead of standing up for peace and tranquility, Russian troops invaded another country without any real reason (as mentioned above). Even appeals by some Donbas locals – “Putin! Bring in the troops!” – were just gut reactions to propaganda horror stories about Kyiv’s imminent intention to cleanse the region of Russian-speakers. Therefore, the Russian government no longer has any moral right to claim that it protects and preserves “peace, tranquility and happiness”. It is the Russian state, and not the opposition, that has implemented the worst war scenario, chaos, death and military intervention in a neighbouring country, namely all the evils that it should be fighting.
- The Donbas war has irreversibly changed Russia. As mentioned above, no war in the history of post-Soviet Russia has reached such heights of cynicism and moral degradation. Never since the collapse of the Soviet Union has the Russian state involved so many people in its crimes. Never have there been so many broken families and broken relationships as a consequence of the government’s policies, shattered not for political, but primarily for moral reasons because the war in Ukraine has more to do with morality than simple politics. There has been another important change in Russian society – growing repressions, swaying between “targeted” and “massive” ones. According to recently published statistics, 200 criminal cases for posts in social networks were filed in 2015; at least 18 of them resulted in actual prison sentences. And often it was because of one idea expressed in one article… I believe that if the number of defendants accused of posting “political” messages reaches the hundreds, we can actually call it massive repression against dissidents.
- The Donbas war has irreversibly changed Ukraine and Russia’s position in post-Soviet world order. The foundation for hostility between two peoples – not individual citizens, among whom there are persons with different views, but namely people as a whole – has now been laid for at least a decade, if not for centuries; it will be impossible to forget what has happened after so much blood has been spilled. That is why the Donbas war marks a turning point in Russian and modern European history. All the consequences of this war have yet to be fully revealed and understood. The longer Russians close their eyes to what is happening, the more fatal and pernicious will the consequences be for their country.
Everything is still ahead…
- Teacher releases primer for discussing Russia’s hybrid war in Ukraine
- White Russian officer and Vlasovite – source of Putin’s hybrid war strategy, former KGB psychoanalyst says
- Kremlin hybrid war tactics in Georgia, 2008 and Ukraine, 2014-2015 (Infographic)
- Russian hybrid warfare: what are effects-based network operations and how to counteract them
- Taras Kostanchuk: “I saw professional Russian soldiers in the Donbas”
- EU and OSCE note unprecendented violence escalation in Donbas
- Will Ukraine and the West acknowledge the real occupation of the Donbas?