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War in Ukraine, “red lines” in Syria and the Obama administration

War in Ukraine, “red lines” in Syria and the Obama administration


Composed and forthright, Oleksander Zozuliak related the horrors of being mangled and then crushed under a Russian tank for over an hour during furious battles near Debaltseve. More riveting than any blockbuster, this video testimony of a heroic artillery officer who lived to tell about that savage cauldron had been starkly filmed with a single stationary camera. Propped on a white hospital bed, Mr. Zozuliak lay bundled in sheets except for his bandaged right arm which displayed ugly, unusual looking bruises. Towards the end of his story, he pulled back the blanket to reveal the small stump of all that remained of his other arm.

This film was the centerpiece of a presentation at the Ukrainian Museum in New York on March 11 devoted to three videos by New York director Damian Kolody which he crafted as “testimonials” – no political spin, but rather documentaries without commentary. They were shown at Congressional hearings and could be utilized for future war tribunals, he noted.

After the screenings, journalist and author Andrea Chalupa hosted a far-ranging panel discussion with the videographer. The remaining two speakers were Mouaz Moustafa, central figure in “Red Lines”, the award-winning documentary about Syrian activists, and Michael Weiss, editor of the online journal “The Interpreter” and author of “Isis: Inside the Army of Terror”.

The audience learned about the Syrian struggle for their freedom and democracy and what this augurs for Ukraine. The discussion provided insights into the smokescreens and myopic policy of the West and in particular the ideology of President Barack Obama, and concluded with a practical suggestion of what can be done.

Undaunted War Hero

Mr. Kolody’s first film was a highlight reel from the February 2015 one year Commemoration March of the “Heaven’s Hundred” protestors killed by snipers in Kyiv. It looked like the whole city had poured out into the streets. Huge photographs of the victims towered over the Maidan; there were countless candles and a sea of memorial flowers. Eerie footage showed white chalk outlines on the pavements where the protestors were shot down.

This was followed by a short documentary of relatives and loved ones waiting for buses bringing back soldiers from the front lines at Debaltseve. Resolute warriors, tearful embraces, flowers, chants of “Heroes, Heroes!” -everything you might expect when troops defending your homeland return to their loved ones. Everything, except: Where were the politicians, the official  government representatives? Where was the higher army staff? Why no official support in gratitude to soldiers who gave their lives and limbs? This remains an open and disturbing question…

Oleksander Zozuliak, the tragic figure in the third video, was a bio-engineer from Chernivetska Oblast (Province) before he volunteered for the army. Born in 1977, he trained as an artillery commander and was assigned to ATO forces only 8 kilometers from Debaltseve. Starting on January 25, 2015 Ukrainian forces were subjected to a fierce three-day offensive by the Russians. Mr. Zozuliak stoically began to recount those harrowing hours…

ATO troops fought with hand-held RPG rockets and single shot grenade launchers. They laid mines and dug ditches against an overwhelming force of armor and infantry. The Russians seemed to have an endless supply of ammunition for their multiple rocket GRAD launchers and bigger SMERCH rockets (12 inches in diameter). The shortages of Ukrainian ammunition and equipment were sobering and the Russians had 20 times more tanks and conventional artillery. In contrast, ATO armaments were mostly old and outdated Soviet issue; Mr. Zozuliak’s own handgun was from 1951.

In the dense fog, Mr. Zozuliak had to zero in his artillery by the sounds of advancing armor. After several of their tanks were destroyed, the enemy attempted to encircle them. When one tank approached from the rear, Mr. Zozuliak ran to the other artillery positions to organize a coordinated counter attack.

tank angle
Still screen shot from Damian Kolodiy’s film about the war in Ukraine


The Russian tank half-entered a trench and crushed four ATO soldiers to death. Mr. Zozuliak tried to squeeze through between the heavy caterpillar tracks. The tank then purposely switched gears trying to crush him. As he jumped, the tank ran over part of his arm, caught him in its treads, backed up and finally came to a stop on top of him. His unclasped helmet was pulled into the whirling caterpillar tracks. He lay trapped in that position for more than one hour, until the 40-ton behemoth could be disabled and pulled off.

tank off
Still screen shot from Damian Kolodiy’s film about the war in Ukraine


Mr. Zozuliak likened this to being caught in a meat grinder. Constant noise in his head, pain everywhere in his body (contused left side of his brain and mangled limbs), yet he somehow managed to remain conscious. But the barbarity of this Russian tank commander should come as no surprise. Mr. Zozuliak witnessed Russian officers shooting at their own retreating soldiers. The Russians even executed their own wounded, didn’t bother to collect their dead and cut off prisoner body parts. Fractions of separatists fought among themselves and even shelled towns under their own control.

Little wonder, for many Russian infantry were found to be criminals recently released from local jails, unlike the technicians and artillery forces who were professional Russian regulars. The captured tank commander with official Russian documents was led away for interrogation. Running low on ammunition, ATO was forced to retreat. Even so, according to Mr. Zozuliak, Russian losses were “far greater than ours.”

Mr. Zozuliak evaluated troop support. The promised winter uniforms had never arrived. Despite a couple of higher military officials being investigated for corruption, no one ever heard any results. Initially the army supplied basics like boots, clothing, helmets and vests. His unit was assigned an MBT (main battle tank) personnel carrier, but they couldn’t fix it in time. Government food included canned meat, but there was no time to forage for wood for fires, and to eat it straight from the can would make you sick. Melted snow became drinking water, and the soldiers washed only once a month.

Amazingly, it was volunteers who supplied shovels, axes, even communications equipment and generators! “We could say the main support comes from volunteers and the Ukrainian people with fresh food and clothes”. Of great comfort were letters from young children to the troops.

Mr. Zozuliak enumerated his injuries: thermal burns and scars from tank treads, missing skin and muscles, three broken pelvic bones, broken wrist and ankle, foot fractured in three places, massively traumatized thigh. He will need an arm prosthesis.

The best and brightest in Ukraine are sacrificing their lives in this war. Mr. Zozuliak is a very intelligent man. When recounting Russian atrocities, he pointed to humane principles of war: “…some orders should not be executed.” Motivating his huddled anti-tank troops, he displayed extraordinary initiative. He managed to remain alive by his “logical thinking and survival instinct.” He says he is not afraid about the horrible mutilations his body endured. Mr. Zozuliak is astute to  the overall situation in southeast Ukraine. He gave food and clothing to local residents – only to see these same people later on TV falsely accuse ATO of torturing them and running over them with tanks. He is clear about his duty and clear about the consequences.

“I did what I had to do; I volunteered. If I had refused, the next man would also have refused, and then who would defend our country against Russia? I don’t regret it; this was my responsibility and I wanted to go… The West has not helped us, yet Putin has not been able to link Crimea with southeast Ukraine… But if NATO sent peacekeepers to Ukraine, casualties on both sides would be much lower.”

“One day I may fight again.” The crippled officer smiled and added: “I have combat experience now.”

The Lessons of Syria – “Red Lines”

What do you do when you realize the international community doesn’t know, doesn’t care, and the leader of the free world has a set policy of not getting involved, no matter what?

The second panelist that evening, Mr. Moustafa is Executive-Director of the Syrian Emergency Task Force which supports the Syrian opposition working for freedom and secular democracy through media, lobbying, and humanitarian assistance. “Red Lines” is a gripping documentary film about two young Syrian activists, Mr. Moustafa and Razan Shalab al-Sham, starting with Bashar al-Assad’s crackdown in 2012. Dedicated “to the children of Syria”, it bears repeated viewings, not least because of the parallels and lessons that can be drawn for Ukraine.

The Syrian Revolution could be considered the first “YouTube war”. The pro-democracy opposition provided first-hand video evidence and also established themselves as the most reputable source of information to the West. Yet all their hard work lobbying and in the media was meeting major resistance and setbacks. “Red Lines” details their struggles and frustrations, and the labyrinth of self-delusion, euphemisms and lies of the West. They came up against a brick wall. But the most compelling part of this movie is how Mr. Moustafa and Ms. Razan conceived a unique project to break through all of this.

They presented the West with a choice. They did not ask for weapons, they did not ask for boots on the ground. They explained the future scenario – either the continued brutality of Assad or the inevitable rise of extremist groups like Isis, extremists and warlords. The only positive alternative was to support cities with civilian courts and civilian police forces.

The two activists started to transform one city near the Turkish border along these lines of civilian control. This would be their model showcase for the West, a symbol of what post-Assad Syria could look like. They designed uniforms for a new police force, and started renovating a future courthouse. They trained selected women in fair elections and other responsibilities in democracies. If it could work in one city, it could work in whole regions. This would become their persuasive argument for why the West should support a viable alternative.

Syria, 2013: Senator John McCain and Mouaz Moustafa (far right)


Mr. Moustafa and Ms. Razan were not trained in this; they learned by doing. They faced persecution from President Assad, media disinformation campaigns, endless excuses and rationales about the US waiting for a “credible partner.” Finally, after chemical and other “red lines” were crossed with no repercussions, they realized the truth – it had never been about finding “credible partners”! All along it had simply been US policy to not get involved.

These lessons learned about President Obama are vital for Ukraine.

After all the heartbreaks, Mr. Moustafa stated near the end of “Red Lines”: “… the only way I’ve changed is to find out the world is a nasty place and a lot of people act based only on what is in their own best interest.”

“No interest in Ukraine”

Mr. Weiss, the remaining speaker, revealed that Vice President Joe Biden flat out told Senator McCain: “there is only one man in the country who thinks arming Ukraine is a stupid idea.” Despite his stirring and pro-Eastern Europe/NATO speech in Tallinn, Estonia, the President stated at a recent fund-raiser: “We have no interest in Ukraine.”

Western politics has been all talk and no action. Ukraine needs anti-tank missiles like Javelins and surveying drones, yet Congressional hearings revealed even much of the formerly promised non-lethal aid has not arrived. (When Senator McCain had asked Syrian freedom fighters about the aid America sent, they replied: “We don’t need pizzas.”)

On March 10, Peter Baker posted a NY Times article entitled “Obama Said to Resist Growing Pressure From All Sides to Arm Ukraine”. Even after a reported 1,000 cease-fire violations, the President “…told aides and visitors that arming Ukrainians would encourage the notion that they could actually defeat the far more powerful Russians, and so it would potentially draw a more forceful response from Moscow… [Obama] seems determined to stay aligned with European allies that oppose arms for Ukraine.”

Mr. Obama’s dream is a legacy of bringing Iran in from the cold. He wants to be remembered as the Great Peacemaker – the ‘Obama in Teheran’, much like ‘Nixon in China’, and let the chips fall where they may. But these chips are devastating: multiple wars and multiple “never-again” situations, Mr. Weiss said. Despite Iran and Russia supplying terrorists and weapons to Mr. Assad, Mr. Obama still fears “rocking the Iran boat” and so Isis has doubled within Syria.

The signals all this sends to North Korea and Vladimir Putin are horrendous. For a president who swept into office with promises of rapprochement, non-proliferation, and an end to wars, Mr. Weiss calls Mr. Obama’s actions in Syria, Ukraine and other places “a colossal failure across the board.” Mr. Moustafa said the president simply doesn’t care: “We expected leadership from someone who looked so promising.”

Politicians manufacture a flood of hysterical excuses – unless appeased, the Russians might nuke Europe or they might invade Kyiv. (In reality, the resulting partisan war and mountains of Russian body bags would precipitate a Moscow regime change within six months.) And by claiming there might be someone worse than Mr. Putin in the wings, this administration has amazingly adopted a pro-Putin position. But these are all just smokescreens and shibboleths.

The twisting lies of the Obama administration are astounding; what they said yesterday is not what they will say tomorrow. Mr. Weiss likened White House spin to Alice in Wonderland: “The rule is, jam tomorrow and jam yesterday – but never jam today.”

Since the EU has proven impotent, America is the only country that can make a difference, the panelists agreed. Yet all the lobbying runs up against the brick wall of one man: the Chief Executive.

Strategy:  Shame the president

The panelists offered the assessment that President Obama is most vulnerable in his desire to leave a glorious legacy. This governs everything he does politically. Ukraine needs to clearly demonstrate the personal consequences to Mr. Obama himself if he continues his course – he will not be celebrated as the Great Peacemaker, but will leave behind a tarnished reputation because of his failed and willfully blind policy.

By contrast, Mr. Putin’s main goal is to control Russia. Mr. Weiss said Moscow is worried that what happened at Maidan can happen in their own yard – therefore Ukraine must be destabilized: “Ukraine is a Petri dish, a test case for everything Putin fears can happen in Russia,” Mr. Weiss observed.

What is happening now inside Russia is increasingly scary. Ms. Chalupa stated opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was assassinated to scare off Russian soldiers from talking – like the returning Russian trooper with burns over 85% of his body who said: “I am an unwilling executioner of a dirty illegal war my own country doesn’t even acknowledge.” The Nemtsov murder is reminiscent of Joseph Stalin’s elimination of Sergei Kirov in 1934 – first perpetrate the crime, find a patsy, and then justify your crime by massive crackdowns.

Mr. Putin has always cynically adopted the guise of anti-terrorist; his modus operandi is to create a problem, pretend to solve it, then take a bow, Mr. Weiss said. Yet we are sitting on his Achille’s heel – money. One third of the Russian GNP is frittered away in bribes. And what does a mafia state care most about if not money? Furthermore, the ratcheting up of sanctions should be pursued as part of a larger info-war. The West should keep disclosing the nexus of dirty Russian money and illuminating the prime culprits.

Mr. Weiss concluded: “This will require military effort. Maybe not now, maybe not in two years. But it will happen.” Mr. Moustafa added: “The longer it takes, the harder it will be. And the US will be dragged into a huge catastrophe because it came too late.”

The core values of Ukraine and Syria are in alignment and Mr. Obama is turning a blind eye to Iran and Russia waging war in Syria, just like Russia in Ukraine. Mr. Weiss related he encountered no anti-war sentiment when in Kyiv; the resistance of the Ukrainian people is something Mr. Putin did not calculate. And the Ukrainians are very clear: they know very well they cannot defeat Russia in a conventional war, so their goal is to expose Mr. Putin’s lies to his own people. They want to foment a crisis inside Russia: Everyone has a mom and wife, brothers and sisters. We will send enough body bags back to Russia to end their foreign adventures.

IMGP1507 2
left to right: Damian Kolodiy, Andrea Chalupa, Mouaz Moustafa, Michael Weiss


Mr. Moustafa voiced the feelings of the panel: the only way to get to him is to shame the president.  Everything Mr. Obama says is based on political calculations and his advisors want to protect him from his conscience. Ukraine and Syria are a big headache for the president; he only wants to leave office with big achievements to glorify his reputation. But the “Great Peacemaker’s” legacy will be defined by his failed policies in Ukraine and Syria and the spread of wars. His legacy is precisely where he is most vulnerable, and this is where we have a chance to influence him.

 This article first appeared in The Ukrainian Weekly, March 29, 2015


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