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Mychailo Wynnyckyj: Thoughts from Kyiv – 22 April 2014

Mychailo Wynnyckyj: Thoughts from Kyiv – 22 April 2014

Mychailo Wynnyckyj


Last weekend we celebrated Easter – a time for reflection and rebirth. Several months ago, Dominique Arel (Chair of Ukrainian Studies at the University of Ottawa), called my writings a “Maidan Diary”. Diaries are a tool for reflection, but does keeping a diary inevitably lead to closure and rebirth?

My friend Lyubko Markevych who, like me, has Canadian roots, and has lived in Kyiv for more than a decade, wrote the following at the start of the weekend: “I’ve been in Kyiv throughout all the killings beginning in January. This evening I decided to walk down Hrushevsky street, a parallel street to Institutska, where the killings began a month earlier on January 22. It’s much quieter here with fewer people milling about and I like it this way. I can’t really explain why I’m compelled to come here this evening. I know its Friday, not just any Friday, but Good Friday… I know I’m looking for closure but I can’t find it. I feel compelled (…there’s that word again) to return to the scene of the crime of January 22 and subsequent days. My emotions are frayed and tormented. Memories of leisurely cappuccinos on this street clash with more recent memories of snipers, blood and stretchers carrying out the dead and wounded. I can’t reconcile it. Its much too raw and still too early.”

During the past months we have lived a lifetime. In December I stood with my wife in awe watching hundreds of people spontaneously building barricades from snow and ice – seemingly with no guidance as to what each person should be doing and how, but building nevertheless; we laughed (a reflection of pride, confidence in victory, and patriotism all wrapped together) when we first heard the announcer from the Maidan stage say “Dear Kyivans! Please don’t bring us any more food – we have more than we can eat”. In January, I witnessed a balaklava-clad piano player playing Chopin less than 10 meters from a line of armed riot police, and for the first time I saw my city, my beloved Kyiv, descend into violence and burn. In February, I saw a Berkut officer stepping out from behind the Stella (monument) on Independence Square to shoot a young man running through the “no-man’s land” between protesters and riot police; I cried like I have never cried before when the coffins of the Heaven’s Hundred were brought forth to the tune of “Plyve Kachya”, and then carried away on their final journey to the sound of thousands chanting “Heroes do not die!”. In March, I celebrated: we had won! Sure, the Crimean thing was outrageous, but at the end of the day, Yanukovych had fled, and Ukraine could now rebuild. And now, April is almost over…

I’m tired – emotionally, physically – and I’m feeling confused. The protests on Kyiv’s Maidan (for me at least) represented a unique and poignant moment of humanity. During the past months each of us individually, and all of us collectively, experienced what it truly means to be a Person. According to the Church, this is how it should have been: “As a spiritual being, the human creature is defined through interpersonal relations. The more authentically he or she lives these relations, the more his or her own personal identity matures. It is not by isolation that man establishes his worth, but by placing himself in relation with others and with God.” (Benedict XVI – Caritas in Veritate). So why has He forsaken us? If this was victory, where is the rebirth?

The simple answer is that Yanukovych’s flight was not yet a victory. As Bishop Borys Gudziak has been quoted as saying: “This land (Ukraine) belonged to Satan throughout the 20th century, and he does not give up his dominion easily.” After Maidan, the battleground moved eastward – and that was to be expected. But the conflict has been complicated by Putin, and now Ukraine’s revolution has seemingly become a global event.

But has it? If the Maidan was about the emergence of a new dominant social paradigm – one where (perhaps idealistically, as with any ideology) the “good” is defined as respect for Persons and their inter-relations, and the “evil” is represented by a de-personalized system – then the current conflict between the West and Russia (in which Ukraine is the battleground, but not itself an actor) seems to have little to do with this Revolution. The diplomatic war between Russia and the West is a battle of systems, not Persons. And given recent polls showing overwhelming support among the Russian population for military incursion into Ukraine, it would seem that portrayal of this conflict as being a personalized Putin-vs.-NATO affair is also wrong.

Events in Ukraine are further complicated by the fact that Russia has launched a new kind of war – with tactics that have not been seen previously anywhere (to my knowledge). Until now, insurrection was a defensive strategy: when an armed force occupied a particular territory, local residents would sometimes revolt against their occupiers through armed insurrection. However, to employ insurrection as a strategy of territorial expansion is new. For the first time in Crimea, and now in Donetsk and Luhansk, Russia has staged an insurrection beyond its own borders. Clearly the social mood in the region was partially amenable to such actions, but as polling data from KIIS (Kyiv International Institute of Sociology) released last Friday shows, those in the Donbas wanting to break away from Kyiv are a minority. And nevertheless, roads have been blocked, government buildings occupied, and separatist groups have made clear that they are just as determined in their demands as the Maidan activists were in Kyiv 2 months ago.

Since the official start of the “anti-terrorist operation” on April 14, the Turchynov/Yatseniuk government has faced extensive criticism for its apparent inaction in the face of armed bandits/separatists/hoodlums occupying government buildings in the eastern oblasts. Although much of this criticism may be warranted, personally, I have some sympathy for Ukraine’s post-revolutionary leaders. According to the values of the Maidan, and of the new Ukraine more generally, human life is an absolute. Active resistance to Russian aggression by government forces will inevitably involve loss of life – more specifically, dead and wounded Ukrainian citizens. One can argue that these citizens are misinformed and/or duped by Russian subversives, but nevertheless, they are human beings, and they are citizens of this country. Having witnessed the violence of the Maidan, if I were asked to order their shootings, I’m not sure I would be able to. One can argue that if a person chooses to pursue a country’s highest political office, that person should be prepared to potentially take responsibility for loss of life. But could an equally valid argument not be made that the differentia of Ukraine (and its strength in the face of aggression) is its refusal to resort to violence?

In an effort to diffuse the situation, Ukraine’s post-revolutionary government has offered numerous compromise measures aimed at diffusing the Donbas separatists’ demands: Turchynov and Yatseniuk jointly announced their plan to introduce constitutional changes that will include decentralization of fiscal policy, devolution of executive power, concessions with respect to language policy. But if you ask me, they have gone too far! If devolution is extended to language policy, the soft affirmative action style policy of Ukraine’s two decades of gradual de-Russification will end. And if it ends, what will become of the Ukrainian nation-state? The east of the country will inevitably (over time) become completely absorbed within Russia’s hegemonic sphere of cultural influence (Ruskiy Mir) whereas the western regions will integrate (culturally and economically) with the EU while remaining Ukrainian speaking. In such a scenario, one can easily envision the “Belgianization” of Ukraine (i.e. a territorial split along language lines) within a decade. If the price to pay for territorial integrity is the loss of the essence of the nation, is the price not too high? Many in Kyiv are asking this question quietly at the moment. If separatists in Donbas are appeased too much, the questions will soon become much louder…

However, “The Donbas needs to be heard!” Lately, this seems to have become the favorite slogan of such Party of Regions “greats” as Nikolai Levchenko (PR Parliamentarian), Rinat Akhmetov (Ukraine’s richest oligarch and PR financier), and Mykhailo Dobkin (PR Presidential candidate). “Donbas wants to be Ukrainian – it needs to be accommodated!” This was the argument of Dominque Arel with whom I was honored to share a panel during a discussion at Brown University last week (my contribution was via Skype). But does Donbas really want to be Ukrainian, or do certain politicians in the Donbas want to guarantee a future for themselves in a post-Maidan world? Are language issues really important to the Donbas, or is this issue merely a convenient smokescreen for a power grab?

The reality on the ground in Luhansk, and in small towns in Donetsk oblast (according to many reports) is that local Party of Regions officials are effectively collaborating with the “insurgents”, if not actually commanding them. During the Yanukovych regime, these same Party of Regions officials were all-powerful – not just in the Donbas, but throughout Ukraine. “Donetski” ruled in every city and town throughout the country – in the militia, tax inspectorate, and in local executives. Now this power has transferred to representatives from other regions… I therefore suggest that the counter-revolution of Donetsk has nothing to do with real political agendas (e.g. language, federalism, regional identities, etc.), but is instead driven by the greed of a power-hungry local elite.

After Crimea, few doubt (regardless of Putin’s propaganda) that the current unrest in eastern Ukraine has been instigated, financed, and organized by Russian agents in the region. Nevertheless, it is less than believable that clandestine operatives would have been successful in their efforts if some level of support for Russian-inspired policies were not forthcoming from the local population. Why are the people of the Donbas unhappy? Why are some leaders of local governments overtly betraying their country? Why are local police forces, and even some military personnel switching sides?

One answer is criminality and corruption which on a local level (particularly in the industrial east of Ukraine) reached epic proportions under the Yanukovych regime. Not surprisingly, after the revolution in Kyiv, many local officials now fear prosecution. As was aptly pointed out by one observer: local mayors in towns like Sloviansk, Kramatorsk, Horlivka in Donetsk region are leading attacks against their own buildings. The only plausible motivation for such behavior is fear – fear of prosecution by the post-revolutionary Kyiv government if local Yanukovych-era crimes are uncovered; fear of losing access to income streams resulting from criminal/corrupt rent-extraction schemes.

Interestingly, the eastern Ukrainian insurrection has not been joined by miners. It seems that the leaders of this social group (who dominated the region’s politics in the 1990’s) understand that Ukraine can survive without Donbas, but Donbas miners simply cannot survive without Ukraine. Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts are both net recipients of central government subsidies – to a lesser extent than Crimea (which is truly an economic basket-case), but nevertheless, both Donbas oblasts receive more than they contribute to the national budget. The eastern industrial region is not at all the economic power house that it is often made out to be. In Russia, mass closing of coal mines has been commonplace – with an abundance of natural gas, Russia has no need for coal. The economic future of the Donbas within the Russian Federation is therefore a clear and highly unpleasant prospect for the region’s miners…

Getting one’s head around what exactly is going on in Ukraine is becoming exceptionally difficult: not just because communication lines with the eastern regions (particularly with smaller towns) are not as well tread as those between Kyiv and the rest of the world, but also because explaining current events requires understanding so many dimensions. One shouldn’t blame international journalists for their superficial reporting, but given what is at stake (i.e. world peace), a more nuanced understanding of both realities on the ground, and more specifically of the disconnect between international diplomacy and local events, should become (in my opinion) a question of professional ethics for media professionals.

For example: The question on the minds of practically every western commentator on all international media networks throughout the past month has been “what are Putin’s motivations?” In the heat of the Crimean annexation in March, I was asked by a prominent western journalist to stop comparing Putin to Hitler (and Crimea to Sudetenland) because it made me sound biased. After-all, the majority ethnic Russian population of the peninsula voted for annexation in a referendum, and the Kremlin’s argument about protecting language rights in the Crimea had at least some merit… After last week’s press conference by the Russian President, when he explained his fundamental belief that southern and eastern Ukraine (so-called “Novorosiya”) should be “returned” to Russia, few continue to believe that protection of language rights is really the reason behind the Kremlin’s aggression. Putin has made it eminently clear that he does not recognize Ukraine’s right to exist! For him, western Ukrainians (Galicians) are “naturally nationalist fascists”, and are of a different ethnicity than the population of Ukraine’s east and south. Therefore, according to Putin’s argument, Ukraine should be sliced into two countries – much like Germany right after WW2.

Sadly, this belief is not just in the mind of Vladimir Putin: last night I was asked my opinion (in all seriousness) on the idea of splitting Ukraine into two countries by a Canadian journalist! My off the cuff answer: if this happens, Kyiv (where I happen to live with my family) will become the new Berlin – but only if the West decides that Ukraine is of value, i.e. worth defending. When at the start of the Cold War in 1948, the western allies decided to counter Soviet aggression in Germany, they stated a claim to Berlin as a potential outpost/showcase of democracy and capitalism surrounded by a state socialist sea. In the current context, no one in Ukraine expects NATO to be inserting troops into Ukraine, but countering Russia’s threat will take much more than merely sanctions (regardless of their severity). Russia represents a long-term existential threat to both to Ukraine and to western values (e.g. rule of law, liberalism, human rights). In whatever way the current “crisis” is resolved, this threat is not going to disappear anytime soon.

A peaceful “solution” to the current crisis was supposedly found in Geneva last week, but immediately after the signing of the accords, both US President Obama, and Secretary of State Kerry expressed their skepticism that Russia would in fact abide by the deal. It would seem that the US has recognized that the threat to Ukraine (and by extension to Europe) from Russia is long term and existential; the actions of Putin undermine the international world order, and therefore require a fundamental response: the US and the EU either agree to Putin’s new rules (i.e. “might makes right”) or they resolve to limit their effect. The stakes are extraordinarily high: if a policy of containment is not adopted, World War 3 seems inevitable (eventually – because no one believes Putin’s appetite for expansion will be satisfied with Ukraine), but if Russia is to be contained, the West must be prepared to take a hard hit financially, and Europe will be forced to rapidly (and expensively) reorient its energy supply lines. Personally, I would like to see a NATO “no-fly zone” over Ukraine, but I recognize that such an eventuality is unlikely until after an all-out Russian invasion (i.e. when it will no longer be needed).

For the record, in a previous post (dated March 22) I predicted that Russia’s military invasion of eastern Ukraine (i.e. the frontal assault with troops, armor, and air support) would begin immediately after May 9 (Victory Day). I stand by this prediction. The usefulness of the Kremlin inspired insurgency in the Donbas seems to be reaching its peak: although mass support for separatism has not transpired, the region has been sufficiently destabilized that at least some level of credible need for peace-keepers has now been established (sufficient for a Russian audience). Putin has made it eminently clear that he plans to act on this need not just in the Donbas, but also in the south – although possibly (hopefully) not immediately in the latter case. Hopefully his intelligence has accurately relayed the social mood of the south to him: an incursion into Kherson (from Crimea), Odesa (from TransDnistria), or Dnipropetrovsk (from the east) will inevitably turn into a partisan blood-bath that will make Chechnya seem peaceful. Surely he understands that Kyiv is (for now?) out of his reach…

The reaction of the West to any direct Russian military incursion into Ukraine will be to isolate the aggressor economically, and to further deploy military forces on the eastern border of NATO. However, no direct NATO military involvement in Ukraine will be forthcoming – the strategy of the West will be to wage a war of economic attrition against Russia at the expense of Ukraine’s territory. In the short term this, of course, is tragic. But in the long-term, Berlin survived (and some would say prospered). Kyiv must be given the same chance!

God help us!

Mychailo Wynnyckyj PhD

Kyiv-Mohyla Academy

Source: FB

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