In a glimmer of hope, a Brussels-based think tank that is funded by the Soros Foundation along with Sweden, Norway, Finland, France, Canada and Australia (among others), has issued a report on the Ukraine conflict that acknowledges what some of us have been saying for a long time: the Donbass rebels are not Russian puppets, but mostly Ukrainian citizens who executed an uprising due to legitimate grievances in the aftermath of the 2014 coup in Kiev.
The International Crisis Group recently published Rebels Without a Cause: Russia’s Proxies in Eastern Ukraine. According to academic Russia expert Paul Robinson – who brought this report to my attention in a recent blog post:
“The ICG’s report is based on interview[s] with ‘rebels, Russian fighters, former and current Russian officials, and de facto republic officials, as well as analysis of public statements and other open sources.’ It is very clear about the origins of the war in Donbass, telling readers that:”
The conflict in eastern Ukraine started as a grassroots movement. … demonstrations were led by local citizens claiming to represent the region’s Russian-speaking majority. They were concerned both about the political and economic ramifications of the new Kyiv government and about moves, later aborted, by that government to curtail the official use of Russian language throughout the country.
The fact that a western organization is acknowledging this represents a significant change in the narrative, which up to now has insisted that the Donbas rebels were mostly Russians who had spilled over the border (or Ukrainians who were controlled by Moscow) to cause trouble for the new “democracy revolution” government in Kiev.
I’d like to think that this may portend a willingness on the part of some of the political class in the west to work toward the resolution of this conflict in particular and a lowering of tensions with Russia in general. The conflict in the Donbass or with Russia more generally is not in the interests of the people of the west, much less the people of Ukraine or Russia.
With that thought in mind, I’m pleased to report that the latest behind-the-scenes negotiations have resulted in the successful brokering of a ceasefire on the contact line in the Donbas, with both sides having pulled back. According to the OSCE report of July 18th:
BRATISLAVA, 18 July 2019 – OSCE Chairperson-in-Office and Slovak Minister of Foreign and European Affairs Miroslav Lajčák welcomed the new recommitment to an unlimited ceasefire in eastern Ukraine, starting from 21 July at 00 hrs. 01 min. (Kyiv time), as agreed at the meeting of the Trilateral Contact Group held in Minsk on 17 July.
Chairperson Lajčák stressed that this development constitutes an urgently needed and significant step, particularly considering the rising number of civilian casualties along the contact line reported by the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine (SMM). Noting the importance of ensuring the sustainability of the ceasefire in order to avoid the failures of previous recommitments, the Chairperson-in-Office underlined that maintaining the ceasefire is as crucial as the recommitment itself. “A meaningful ceasefire needs to be permanent and irreversible. I urge all sides to live up to their commitments, and finally establish a comprehensive, sustainable and unlimited ceasefire, which can open the door for the peaceful resolution of the conflict,” Lajčák said.
Lajčák noted that this recommitment builds on the positive developments in the recent process of disengagement of forces and hardware from Stanytsia Luhanska, which has been facilitated and monitored by the SMM, as well as in concrete plans to finally repair the bridge –a crucial daily crossing point for thousands of people in the Luhansk region and badly damaged by the conflict. “I particularly welcome the common understanding reached by the sides yesterday in Minsk regarding the need to start repair work on the bridge at Stanytsia Luhanska. These repairs are urgent; they need to happen without delay. The people on the ground have suffered for too long already. And, we need to use this momentum to take even more positive steps forward,” he stressed.
The following day, Ukrainian president Zelensky announced the details of a possible prisoner swap between Ukraine and Russia. The AP reported:
KIEV, Ukraine — Ukraine’s president on Friday outlined the details of an impending prisoner swap with Russia, saying that Kiev is willing to release a jailed Russian journalist in exchange for a Ukrainian film director.
President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s statement comes at the end of the week of shuttle diplomacy, with the Russian and Ukrainian human rights ombudswomen holding talks both in Moscow and in Kiev. The flurry of activity around imprisoned Russians and Ukrainians follows last week’s first telephone call between Zelenskiy and Russian President Vladimir Putin….
….Zelenskiy said in televised comments Friday that Ukraine could release journalist Kirill Vyshinskiy, who has been in jail for a year on treason charges, if Russia releases film director Oleg Sentsov from a Russian prison colony. Sentsov is serving 20 years in a Russian prison for allegedly plotting acts of terrorism.
I will keep an eye on this development and post any updates if the exchange actually takes place.
Zelensky’s Servant of the People party appears to have won yesterday’s snap parliamentary elections, according to exit polls, but did not win an outright majority. Andriy Purbiy, an avowed neo-Nazi who has served as the speaker for the past several years, will now be out of office. [Update: Zelensky’s Servant of the People party did, in fact, win a majority in the Rada, which gives Zelensky much more room to implement whatever program he wants – NB]
And now for a splash of cold water…
In a recent article, Russia expert Nicolai Petro discussed an incident that doesn’t bode well for the idea of Zelensky resisting the inevitable pressure he’s going to get from the ultra-nationalist elements in Ukraine who won’t stand for any agreement with Russia or reconciliation with the Donbas. A major Russian TV station and a Ukrainian TV station had planned to hold direct people-to-people talks between the two countries but were forced to cancel it due to threats of violence:
On July 7 the Russian television channel Russia-24 and the Ukrainian television channel “NewsOne” announced that they would hold a two-hour live studio discussion called “We Need to Talk” on July 12. NewsOne explained its initiative as a response to the fact that “today in Ukraine roughly 70 percent of people expect direct political discussions with Russia.” It also recalled that during the late 1980s space bridges between Phil Donahue and Vladimir Pozner had “laid the beginnings for contacts between peoples who, thanks to their politicians, found themselves in a Cold War.” Within 24 hours, however, the show was cancelled. Organizers cited “direct physical threats to journalists and their families,” as the reason they had been forced to abandon their attempt to “organize a space for the discussion of nonpolitical questions through the efforts of ordinary people who had never questioned the territorial integrity of Ukraine, without politicians and odious propagandists.”
Needless to say, if this program had been allowed to proceed it could have potentially laid the groundwork for reconciliation between the two neighbors. Perhaps the fact that extremists sabotaged such an effort is not a surprise, but the reaction by various government representatives – including Zelensky – is disturbing. Petro goes on:
The mere idea of engaging in a dialogue with Russians was attacked by nearly every political party. The prime minister said it “played into the hands of the enemy.” The speaker of parliament demanded that the Ukrainian Security services respond immediately to this “brutal violation of Ukrainian law.” The National Council for Television and Radio said it would meet in extraordinary session to consider revoking NewsOne’s broadcasting license. The prosecutor general stated that there was ample legal reason for doing so, and for his part initiated a criminal investigation of NewsOnes owners for support of terrorism and treason. With a bit of Orwellian flair, the National Union of Journalists of Ukraine issued a statement that, while affirming the rights of Ukrainian journalists, declared its “outrage” at the idea of any interaction with “a Russian propaganda channel.”
Such a reaction was more or less expected from the Old Guard that had just been thrashed electorally, but how did the new president respond? He recorded a video and posted it on the Internet, calling the attempt at dialogue “cheap and risky PR-hype on the eve of the elections.” Instead of a televised discussion among average people, Zelensky challenged Putin to sit down with him and four other world leaders—Trump, May, Macron and Merkel—to talk about “who Crimea belongs to and who is ‘not there’ in Donbass.”
It seems to me that Zelensky had an opportunity here to show some leadership, but failed. By agreeing with the suggestion that merely talking to average Russians – whom most Ukrainians have familial ties with – was “cheap” and “risky PR” he is reinforcing the idea that Russians are inherently not to be trusted and an enemy. Instead of allowing a space to be opened up for Ukrainians and Russians to see and talk to each other as regular human beings, he dismissed it out of hand.
As stated in a previous post, if Zelensky is to have any prayer of achieving a positive resolution of the Donbas conflict and a modus vivendi with Ukraine’s next door neighbor – as he promised to do and earned him the election victory, he’s going to have to take on some heavy opposition. The only way he can hope to work around that opposition is by motivating average Ukrainians to have his back. The people-to-people talks could have been a tool on behalf of that if he’d had the savvy to recognize it.
On June 19th, Oliver Stone conducted an interview with Putin at the Kremlin. Topics included a heavy focus on Ukraine, as well as touching on U.S. politics and U.S. tensions with Iran.
I’d like to include below a direct quote from Putin in this interview about nationalism. I’ve heard many American pundits and politicians call Putin a nationalist, which I’ve always found to be a disingenuous characterization of him. Putin is what I would call a sovereigntist. He believes unequivocally in national sovereignty and in Russia’s right to be an independent nation that freely makes its own decisions in its perceived interests – engaging in multilateralism when appropriate, but as a respected equal. This is not nationalism in the commonly understood meaning of the word, which denotes a form of national chauvinism – the idea that a country (or ethnic group) is superior to others and has the right to do what it wants at anyone else’s expense. I have never heard Putin say anything that suggests this kind of ideology – unless he’s being quoted out of context, which happens frequently in the west. Moreover, there are real nationalist politicians in Russia, namely Vladimir Zhirinovsky, leader of the LDPR Party. Putin has had public disagreements with Zhirinovsky and those like him. Here is the quote – emphasis is mine:
Vladimir Putin: In general nationalism is a sign of narrow-mindedness but I do not want to offend Mr Medvedchuk [Ukrainian politician and negotiator].
Another excerpt of this interview that I’d like to include involves Iran. I’ve heard several analysts – typically those who do not have a very deep understanding of Russia – claim that Russia would benefit from a U.S. war or continued tensions with Iran. This is nonsense. Whatever short-term benefits Russia might get in the form of fossil fuel economics or other items mentioned, it would pale in comparison to the the larger problems that a conflict in the area would cause: further destabilization of the Middle East – which is much closer to Russia’s backyard than the U.S., and intensified sectarian conflict and increased risk for terrorism that Russia does not want to infect it’s Muslim region in the Caucasus. Here is what Putin had to say about this, preceded by Stone’s question:
Oliver Stone: Continuing that theme of strategy of tension, how is Russia affected by the US-Iranian confrontation?
Vladimir Putin: This worries us because this is happening near our borders. This may destabilize the situation around Iran, affect some countries with which we have very close relations, causing additional refugee flows on a large scale plus substantially damage the world economy as well as the global energy sector. All this is extremely disturbing. Therefore we would welcome any improvement when it comes to relations between the US and Iran. A simple escalation of tension will not be advantageous for anyone. It seems to me that this is also the case with the US. One might think that there are only benefits here, but there will be setbacks as well. The positive and negative factors have to be calculated.
Read the transcript of the full interview here.