Eastern Ukraine is full of masked gunmen, occupying government buildings and calling for Russian “protection”. The central government in Kiev is unable to organise an adequate response. And the Western powers barely seem capable of understanding what is going on, let alone responding to it.
So far, so familiar. But this is not – yet – a replay of events in Crimea. To understand why, it helps to understand precisely what it is that Russia hopes to gain.
Vladimir Putin’s plan is simple: to see the Ukrainian government pulled apart. He has impaled its leaders on the horns of a dilemma. If they dislodge the insurgents by force, it feeds his narrative about the persecution of Russians. If they fail to do so, it feeds his other narrative: that Ukraine is a failing state, incapable of exercising proper authority. Either way, he can pursue his plan for “federalisation”, which he presents as restoring rights and protection to Ukraine’s minorities but which really amounts to turning it into a second Bosnia, with only the most minimal of central governments.
The risk for the Russian president, however, is that he has unleashed forces he might not be able to control. The idea that he expressed in his big victory speech in March – that Russia was a “divided” nation like Cold War Germany – was originally designed as a cover story to allow him to march into Crimea. Now, it has taken on a momentum of its own. Putin is being forced to play catch-up with his own rhetoric about a “responsibility to protect”, without being able to define whether he means ethnic Russians, Russian-speakers or “compatriots”, which in Russian law often refers to the inhabitants of the former USSR.
Meanwhile, on the ground, there is a toxic mixture. The hard-core of the protesters are members of Russian special forces, or locals funded by Ukrainian oligarchs. While some of Ukraine’s richest men are playing a duplicitous game, currying favour with both Kiev and Moscow, these particular moneymen are said to be close to former President Yanukovych – and even to include Yanukovych himself, whose kitsch new bolthole in Moscow reportedly cost $52 million. In return for protection from the Russians, these oligarchs are being required to spend part of their considerable fortunes on the insurgency.
To begin the protests, it only took a few score men. But others are now getting sucked in, including local radicals whom Russia has been cultivating for years, as well as volunteers attracted by a going rate on social media of $300 to $500 a day. And some of the protesters are genuine, though they are probably the least significant element.
The main problem for the West, in trying to contain the situation, is that Ukrainian forces have proved completely inept. The leadership of the National Security and Defence Council is amateurish. The army, which was humiliated in Crimea, is painfully underfunded. The security service, the SBU, has been thoroughly infiltrated by the Russians. In desperation, the authorities turned to the elite Alpha unit – the very force that fired on demonstrators in Kiev – but its members proved less willing to lay down their own lives. The Ministry of Defence has even started collecting donations from ordinary citizens via SMS – nicely patriotic, but no way to run a serious anti-insurgency campaign.
Yesterday’s de-escalation agreement in Geneva prevents the situation getting worse on the ground, but does nothing to stop either side ratcheting up the tension once again.
So what can, or should, we do? While there is a broader debate to be had about sanctions and non-lethal military assistance, the first priority for the EU and America should be to speak the truth. We don’t need to debate whether the gunmen – the “little green men” – are Russian soldiers in disguise. They just are. If Putin, or his foreign minister, tries to deny it, we should contradict them to their face.
Next, there needs to be a better flow of information to and from Ukraine. There are Ukrainian NGOs that are doing a good job of exposing what is happening on the ground, but Kiev needs to be assisted with satellite intelligence, to show what is lurking on the border and to assess what might be crossing it.
The West can also help with capacity-building for Ukraine’s beleaguered institutions. Joint exercises with its armed forces in neighbouring states would help re-professionalise their systems of command and control. When Yanukovych was in power, the border service was one giant pool of corruption; it is utterly unfit to monitor the border with Russia. But the success of the EU task force sent to Moldova’s eastern border in 2005 to block contraband to and from the rebel (and Russian-backed) “Transnistrian Republic” showed how quickly a proper system can be put in place. And while Western sanctions are already in place on those who backed the old regime, they should be adapted to cut off funding for the separatists.
Above all, we should encourage the Kiev authorities to be brave. Even Yanukovych’s old Party of the Regions has backed away from the Russian version of “federalism” – but there is nothing wrong with local democracy if it means real local elections, especially since they would almost certainly wrong-foot Putin. Opinion polls indicate that even in the east, only a minority of Russian-speaking Ukrainians would vote for union with Moscow. Putin is trying to put off the presidential election due in Ukraine in May. It should not only proceed, but Kiev should bring forward other votes in the east. Either it would win, or Russia would try to stop the vote – which would destroy its claim to represent the interests of the people. Either way, the best way to end this farcical stand-off is to call Putin’s bluff.
Andrew Wilson is Reader in Ukrainian Studies at University College London and author of the forthcoming The Ukraine Crisis (Yale)