At the time of going to press, negotiations are continuing about ending the fighting in the south-east of Ukraine. France, Germany, Russia, the US and Ukraine are involved in the negotiations. Further talks are due to take place in Minsk on Wednesday (11 February).
Fighting resumed in late January, when Alexander Zakharchenko, leader of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), announced a new offensive on all fronts. Since then, the Russian-separatist forces have extended the area under their control.
Although there are differing estimates of how many Russians are fighting in Ukraine — either “voluntarily” or as part of its armed forces — there is certainly no dispute that Russia has provided the DPR with state-of-the-art military equipment.
Equipment provided by Russia has included Buk and Strela anti-aircraft missile systems, Grad and Uragan rocket-launchers, surveillance drones, electronic communications jamming devices, and “reactive” tanks (covered with boxes of explosives, which destroy incoming missiles).
According to military experts, Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 revealed major weaknesses in its equipment and armaments. A major modernisation programme was subsequently undertaken. Its results are now being “tested” in Ukraine.
Ukraine cannot match the hi-tech military hardware provided by Russia.
After declaring independence in 1991, Ukraine reduced its armed forces from 450,000 to 130,000. When fighting first broke out in the south-east last spring, only 6,000 of its troops were combat-ready.
Up to 80% of the money spent by the government on military contracts after 1991 disappeared in backhanders and fraud. Ukraine’s airforce is grounded: it is defenceless against the missile systems provided to the separatist forces by Russia.
Some of Ukraine’s military equipment was designed in the 1930s and manufactured in the 1970s. Boots, helmets and bullet-proof vests for many Ukrainian soldiers have been provided through public fundraising efforts, not by the Ukrainian state.
The Ukrainian government has appealed to the US and EU countries to provide the military equipment it needs to defeat the Russian-separatist forces. American political leaders are divided over the question of military aid. EU leaders are against supplying military equipment.
As the fighting continues, so too do the human casualties. Nearly 5,500 have now been killed, and over 12,000 wounded. Nearly a million people are internally displaced within Ukraine, and another 600,000 have fled abroad.
This week’s talks may or may not result in a ceasefire. That ceasefire may or may not prove long-lasting. But the talks will certainly do nothing to resolve the political issues which underpin the military conflict.
Russia will continue to occupy the Crimea and use its de facto control of the Donetsk and Lugansk “People’s Republics” to dictate policies to Ukraine. Putin will present himself as the strong leader who stood up to the West and will stamp down even more on internal dissent.
Ukraine itself will continue to be ruled by corrupt oligarchs committed to the privatisation and austerity policies which have already proved disastrous for EU states. The main threat to their rule may well come from the far right, who will accuse them of betraying Ukraine to Russia.
And the working class — in Kiev-governed Ukraine and in the DPR/LPR — will be called on to accept cuts in living standards and attacks on their democratic rights because of the threat of external aggression.
Ukraine cannot defeat Russia militarily. In fact, even if it were to be supplied with the firepower needed to defeat Russia, it would be at the unacceptable cost of transforming even more of the Donbas into a wasteland than it is already.
Apart from backing Ukrainian socialists, the left internationally needs to support the anti-war movement, such as it is, in Russia itself. As the Ukrainian-Canadian socialist Marko Bojcun put it in an article after last August’s Russian invasion:
“The only force that can get the Russian military out of Ukraine will be a mass anti-war movement in Russia. All defenders of Ukraine’s right to national self-determination must lend their support and solidarity to the Russian anti-war protesters who are trying to launch that movement and who are being picked off and imprisoned by Putin’s regime.”
“Chicken game” ends
By Ilya Budraitskis
Since yesterday the world has stood still in expectation of the outcome of talks about the Donbas. All parties with any possible interest are involved in the talks: Russia, the EU, the US and Ukraine.
The most striking thing about these talks is the decision not to divulge what is being discussed.
On Thursday Hollande, Merkel and Poroshenko spent five hours discussing something in Kiev. On Friday Hollande and Merkel spoke with Putin in Moscow. Tomorrow a phone conversation in the ‘Normandy format’ (Russia, Ukraine, France, Germany) is scheduled to take place. And Merkel and Obama are due to meet in Washington on Monday.
There has been a complete lack of transparency about all these meetings. But observers are in agreement about one thing: the possibility of the Ukrainian conflict turning into a major war is close as it never has been before.
The January offensive in the Donbas, in which Russian troops were practically openly involved, is probably Putin’s last possible attempt to ‘use pressure to achieve peace’ on his terms.
‘Chicken game’ — the Russian president’s favourite bloody game, and one which he has already played several times during 2014 — has now practically exhausted its potential. The time has come for everyone to put their cards on the table.
The EU is prepared to pay any price to prevent a major war in Europe. The US is prepared to provide weapons and heat up the conflict, while distancing itself from any direct involvement. The Kremlin is prepared to do practically anything in order to secure a formal victory without formally declaring war on a neighbouring country.
There are certain reasons to suppose that a tactical exit can now be found. A variant involving the introduction of a peace-keeping contingent under the banner of the UN or the OSCE, stationed along the new (January) demarcation line would suit Putin because it guarantees:
• Legalisation of the presence of Russian troops in the east of Ukraine (as participation of Russia in the ‘peace-keeping mission’ would be an obligatory condition).
• No membership by Ukraine of NATO and the EU in the foreseeable future (as publicly confirmed by the NATO General Secretary at a conference in Munich yesterday).
• No weapons of any type to be supplied to Ukraine.
• A decisive involvement by Russia in further talks about the status of the Donbas.
The representatives of the so-called ‘Donetsk People’s Republic — who do not take part in negotiations with serious people, but do not suffer from any feelings of inadequacy as a result — have already confirmed their readiness to agree to a ‘peace-keeping’ scenario.
The EU would be able to confirm its symbolic role in preserving peace and security in Europe and would become one of the main participants of the closed club of ‘decision-makers’ about the further fate of the Ukrainian state.
The US, however strange it might appear, could also agree to this variant, passing the responsibility for Ukraine to the EU and receiving in exchange the support of Europe (and perhaps even Russia, given that their positions on Syria have begun to move closer together) in its priority concern: the struggle against ISIS.
But however the talks may finish — with a tactical successes or with a tactical failure (with further serious consequences: military ones in the Donbas, and economic ones in Russia because of a new wave of sanctions) — they represent a strategic complete dead end.
A dead end for Putin’s domestic politics, and a dead end for the course pursued by Putin in the post-Soviet territories.
A dead end for Ukraine as a state, the sovereignty and independence of which have finally changed into the small change of negotiations between ‘world players’.
And, of course, a terrible dead end for the inhabitants of the Donbas, whose brightest future prospects are to live the next 20 years akin to life in present-day Bosnia: a divided and impoverished country, created and governed by “peace-keepers”.