Kiev’s Foibles and the West’s Responsibilities

Photo Ukraine map

By Gordon M. Hahn

[first published by Geographic Forecasting Corporation, 19 June 2014, http://geostrategicforecasting.net/gordonhahn/2014/06/19/kievs-foibles-and-the-wests-responsibilities/]

Much has been said about Russia’s violations of Ukraine’s sovereignty, its annexation of the Crimea, and alleged infiltration of GRU agents into eastern Ukraine. Very few have pointed out Kiev’s ‘anti-terrorist’ operation violates the human rights of Ukrainians for more than Putin’s non-violent, if coercive annexation. Those who do note the latter often hear in response that Kiev’s violations of human rights pale in significance if compared to atrocities committed by the Russian army in the two post-Soviet wars in Chechnya. Indeed, there are some similarities but there are also one key and rather gaping difference. That difference suggests the West should be far less sanguine about Kiev’s military actions in southern and eastern Ukraine.

In the waning year of the USSR, 1991, Russia and its recently elected President Boris Yeltsin engineered a revolution from above against the remnants of Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforming communist Soviet regime and state. The failed hardline coup aimed against both Gorbachev and Yeltsin fully discredited both Gorbachev’s softliners and the hardliners, allowing Yeltsin to consummate his revolution from below by destroying the Soviet state in fall and winter 1991 in alliance with more peripheral Soviet republics. Ukraine, incidentally, played a crucial role in the periphery by voting for independence in its December 1991 referendum and joining with Belarus and Yeltsin’s Russia in signing the Belovezksk agreement which dissolved the USSR.

In the midst of the revolution in the center, another occurred in Chechnya. Radical Chechen nationalists, led by ethnic Chechen Soviet air force general Dzhokhar Dudaev, illegally seized power in autumn 1991. Chechnya immediately declared its independence from Russia without any popular referendum to legitimize the move. Initially, Yeltsin 800 sent troops to Chechnya, but they were surrounded at Grozny airport and were immediately withdrawn. For years Moscow made no further attempt to rein in the Chechens, who by April 1994 were developing ties to Al Qa`ida.

In Ukraine the Maidan revolution’s illegal overthrow of President Viktor Yanukovich and his majority Party of the Regions was followed in short order by pro-independence demonstrations in Crimea and much of the southern and especially eastern Ukraine. Eventually, Putin annexed Crimea, and in refereda much less orderly than that held in the late USSR in March or Ukraine in December Donetsk and Lugansk voted for independence.

In both cases, revolt in the capitol led to secessionist revolt and civil war in the country’s periphery. Here, however, the similarities end.

A key difference separates Kiev’s response to the eastern Ukrainians’ declaration of independence and Moscow’s response to that of the Chechens. After the failed October 1991 deployment to Grozny airport, Yeltsin did order military operations against Chechnya until December 1994, more than three years after Dudaev’s illegal seizure of power and Chechnya’s declaration of independence. In the interim, Moscow refrained from military action against the rebels and attempted numerous times to negotiate the impasse. Moscow offered Chechnya a model adopted by Tatarstan, where president Mintimer Shaimiev managed to conclude a bilateral treaty with Moscow based on the Russian constitution’s Article 11, which stipulates such treaties as one mode for establishing a federative division of powers between federal and regional government. Moscow would conclude treaties with 45 of Russia’s 88 other regions; many of the signing regions were ethnic republics with secessionist impulses, including several other Muslim republics. Unfortunately, Moscow and Grozny were unable to agree on treaty terms.

Kiev turned out to be much more trigger happy than Moscow. As in Chechnya armed rebels seized government buildings in Donetsk, Lugansk and temporarily in other Ukrainian provinces. Although they posed no military threat to Kiev and had the support of a large portion of the population, Ukraine’s provisional government immediately threatened and carried out a military offensive, crudely calling it an ‘anti-terrorist campaign’ against the breakaway republics. No negotiations were held or even offered to the rebels. They were warned immediately that if they did not lay down their arms and abandon government building they would be killed.

In carrying out operations against the rebels, Kiev has shown little regard for the civilian population. It has used irregular para-military forces of the ultra-nationalist Right Sector and the semi-regular National Guard now infiltrated by Right Sector forces along with the regular army. The army has used indiscriminate attacks, including inaccurate artillery and air raids on residential areas and city centers. It has provided protection for Right Sector’s and Ihor Kolomoiskii’s attacks, including the May 2nd terrorist pogrom in Odessa in which at least 40 pro-independence/federalization activists were intentionally burned alive. The attack’s chief organizers, Right Sector’s leader Dmitro Yarosh and oligarch Kolomoiskii were allowed to continue running for president and serving as Dnepropetrovsk’s governor, respectively. This continued even after evidence emerged of their involvement in the Odessa pogrom. Kolomoiskii even met with U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Victoria Nuland in Odessa little more than a month later. Neither Kolomoiskii nor Nuland said a word or undertook a symbolic action to honor the victims.

In light of Kiev’s indiscriminate use of force and blatant violations for human rights, up to and including terrorism in Odessa, it is the responsibility of the West to demand that Kiev halt its offensive, disarm all para-military groups, and hold to account those that have committed crimes. The Ukrainian army can continue to prevent any rebels from moving west or taking over regional governments, but it must refrain from offensive operations.

In addition, the West must convince newly elected President Petro Poroshenko to begin negotiations with the eastern rebels. A major lesson of the Chechen wars for Kiev, Moscow, Washington and Brussels alike is that the sooner and more earnest both sides negotiate, the better the chances are that a large-scale civil war and massive casualties can be avoided. Ending the bloodshed is in everyone’s interests, especially that of all Ukrainians.

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About Gordon M. Hahn