London, 14 April 2014
The weekend again. Always the weekend. From the first takeovers of airfields in Crimea on 1-2 March to the first “pro-Russian” assaults a week ago in Kharkiv, Donetsk and Luhansk. This weekend it was the turn of Slavyansk, Kramatorsk and smaller cities in their vicinity, important because they represent deeper incursions into Ukraine and because Slavyansk is the biggest arsenal in the east of the country. There were also attempted, so far unsuccessful, takeovers of strategic buildings in Odessa, Horlivka, Mykolayiv and Zaporizhiya – where pro-Ukrainians blockaded Putin’s rent-a-crowd until they were bussed ignominiously away. (We have to call them “pro-Ukrainians” because in this conflict the notion of simply being Ukrainian has been annulled by Russia.) Otherwise it has been exactly the same tactics: regional buildings taken over – administrations, police stations, SBU offices – and arrival of the “men in green”, unidentifiable groups in unmarked uniforms, well equipped, synchronised in their assaults and working to the same script: to establish, without a formal invasion, beachheads that a weak, poorly equipped and scared government cannot dislodge.
Because that is one certainty in this conflict: Ukraine’s unity government is scared and it is faltering. Russia’s destabilisation machine is fully operational, with guerrilla troops, special forces, “titushki” mercenaries, Russia’s newly purposeful young unemployed, paid in wads of cash and bottles of vodka, moving east and south, even reportedly into Kyiv, removing the need for formal invasion. 3 Russian divisions meanwhile wait on the border, their purpose for now merely to add to the fear.
Just prior to this weekend it did not seem that way. Before the weekend’s attacks came news of agreed four-way talks between Russia, the US, the EU and Ukraine next week. But as soon as I heard the news I had an urge to shout, “No! Pay no attention!” because it has been made abundantly clear already that such offers are yet another tactic of the Russians, a diversion. They did the same in Crimea, announcing a ceasefire just before they mounted their final push to take over all military bases and seize the Ukrainian Navy’s Crimean fleet. Offer a concession to make the other side take its eye off the ball, then push harder.
Because believe me: Putin isn’t interested in four-way talks, exactly as he isn’t interested in whether Ukraine pays its gas bill or in building bridges with the West. The Russian president isn’t interested in “de-escalating” (surely the most weasel word of the last 2 months) anything at all.
The only thing he is interested in is pulling back into his orbit as much of Ukraine as he can via his Soviet-era-inspired strategy of provocation, false pretext, protectionist takeover. That is what will keep him in power, and that is all he cares about. As my friend James Meek wrote recently, the Ukrainians’ revolution against President Yanukovych was “the closest yet to a script for [Putin's] own downfall. In that sense the invasion is a counter-revolution by Putin and his government against Russians and Ukrainians alike.”
Until western politicians understand this, there is no chance whatsoever that they will understand the enclosed mentality within which this pocket dictator thinks. For Western democrats – for us – one of the most breathtaking circumstances of Russia’s assault on Ukraine’s sovereignty over the last 2 months has been the discovery that words under the Putin regime mean exactly what he wants them to mean. So a man in a balaclava carrying a baseball bat and ordering another to kneel is a Russian in need of protection, just as an unarmed young man wearing yellow and blue stripes on his face is a fascist, a Banderite, a gay and/or an anti-semite.
Faced with Russia’s underground Blitzkrieg of synchronised “uprisings”, Ukraine’s government has so far reacted weakly. It has a lack of loyal manpower to counter the Russian insurgencies, with Ukraine’s security services chief Nalivaychenko having an extraordinarily difficult job recruiting replacements for the security police discredited by their conduct under President Yanukovych. Yet it lacks confidence and courage too, the confidence of nationhood that seemed so promising in Kyiv 2 months ago. When its one conspicuous victory in the last week, the clearing of the administration building in Kharkiv of Putin’s stooges, was achieved with military backup, Russia demanded a cessation of Ukrainian military activity – and there has been none since. Kyiv, subliminally, is dancing to Moscow’s tune, as it always has done, and it has to break the habit.
Why? Because since then, another weekend. Of spontaneously appearing, equipped and trained soldiers; of balaclava-ed ghouls with baseball bats; beatings; lorries arriving out of nowhere laden with tyres and razor wire for barricades; demands for autonomous Russian republics; the sudden flourishing of flags, referendum demands and sophisticated billboard campaigns by men who ordinarily couldn’t flourish more than an AK47 and a bottle of vodka. All in the name of protecting Russians. And this in a country in which, behind all these pro-Putin myrmidons, a recent poll says only 26 per cent of people in the east of Ukraine and 19 per cent in the south favour joining Russia.
And so, again, the same question: what is to be done? In 20 years of travelling and living in Ukraine I have been repeatedly struck by its co-dependency on Russia. But as many of its citizens know, some bitterly after watching the rhetorical tumbleweed of the EU’s and US’s reactions, only Ukraine can save Ukraine. The country must now mobilise: its army, its beleaguered and fractured police, its diminished security services, the 74 per cent and 81 per cent of its people in the east and south who want to remain Ukrainian. The government must support them, identify leaders, bring “pro-Ukrainians” onto the street every day. Because the point of resistance is not to win, but to know that you have to fight. The West needs to put on symmetrical pressure too, if it can be shamed into doing so. Forget sanctions: match Putin’s 3 divisions with 3 NATO divisions on Poland’s and the Baltic states’ borders, provide to Ukraine every kind of military support. And should Russia complain, which is extremely likely, then tell it to support Ukraine’s military too, which it has an obligation to do under its commitment to defend Ukraine’s sovereignty in the Budapest Memorandum.
The political philosopher Edmund Burke is said to have said, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” It is a fine quote, but he didn’t say it. It is likely to have been adapted from a sentence in his Thoughts on the Cause of Present Discontents, which says simply, “When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.”
Good people in Ukraine must associate, then. Today’s deadline for Russia’s stooges and unmarked troops to leave the cities and buildings they have occupied has passed, and Ukraine’s government must decide if it will hold to its promise to remove them militarily. But we must recognise too that Ukraine cannot save Ukraine alone. It has never been more urgent for the US and EU to shed our niceties and complexities and political distinction-drawing, to recognise the westerly invasion by stealth that has taken place from Russia this weekend, and to pre-empt President Putin’s next move: which – I’m sure it is clear to you already – will either be to join up the Ukrainian cities he has taken one by one in a “spontaneous” alliance and organise a new fake referendum to join Russia. Or simply join up those cities with 40,000 soldiers, if Ukraine’s army intervenes in the east today or tomorrow. How far will it go? At the time of writing, contingents of athletic young men have been arriving by civilian flights in Moldova. At the UN last night Russia flagged its intentions with surprising clarity, warning the government in Kyiv not to “go to war with its own people”. Welcome to Crimea 2.0. And then? The southern and eastern Ukrainians will not be the last unpitied sacrifice. First them. Then us.