Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Status In Ukraine

After Putin's announcement today supporting the presidential election in Ukraine on May 23rd and also saying that a referendum in eastern Ukraine should be postponed, a pause in the fighting might be in the cards. By now, a Russian invasion seems unlikely, given that the pretexts for an invasion are now in existence but Russia has up to now decided not to send its uniformed soldiers across the border into Ukraine. It could also be that Putin is trying to exhaust all options to be viewed in the most reasonable way if and when an invasion does take place. Either way, I think this amounts to a tacit admission that events in the east of Ukraine aren't fully under the control of the Kremlin.

The reasons I think this way are that the forced seizures of the government buildings in the east may not constitute the absolute will of the people in the area to engage in separatist activities, especially if those activities bring the response that the Ukrainians have been bringing. More criticism of that in a minute. The leaders of the irregulars and separatists here may also have a lot more legitimacy, having faced down Kiev's troops here. They may also be unwilling or unable to give up their movement, especially that union with Russia would likely mean their own futures would be a lot better than staying with the Ukrainians, who would likely want to prosecute and possibly execute them for treason. For the thousands of pro-Russian separatists who have taken up arms here, this is a great reason to see this thing through.

I think that the fact that right now there has been no invasion could mean that Putin doesn't want to cause the types of economic harm that it is likely to cause, namely, that sanctions leveled at the Russians will be much more mild if he plays by the rules and seems more reasonable in the short run. I think the Europeans in particular are looking for any reason to not level sanctions at Russia, and Germany's calls for Ukraine to halt its offensive may have provided Russia with an opening.

The larger question is what happens now, if there is a pause in the fighting. The government troops sent to put down the rebellion aren't able to do so. If they could have, they would have already. The strategy seems to be to squeeze the separatists, to cut off the towns from supplies, as is now happening in Slaviansk and Kramatorsk. What kind of a people would want to stay a part of Ukraine anyway if Ukrainian troops went in and suppressed the rebels? What type of Ukrainian state emerges after the rebellion is put down? These are the questions that face the Ukrainian authorities, because, assuming their troops are reliable (big assumption) and capable (another big assumption) of putting down the unrest in the over ten cities in the east that are experiencing it, what type of legitimacy do they have to continue?

This is why the Ukrainians are in such a bind, because if they don't fight, they're likely to lose the east. And if they do fight, even if they win temporarily, they lose the hearts and minds of the 9m people who live there, and only (up until now and the Odessa fire) had only nominally supported the separatists. The squeeze strategy would have worked, if given time, because most of the people there would want stability, and if they're surrounded and under embargo, the separatist militias would come under a lot of pressure to negotiate. As of right now, the incentive for the separatists is to not negotiate, because whatever Kiev does, right or wrong, benefits them.

Of course, the calculation was that, should they get into any serious trouble, the Russian Army would come to the rescue. This looks increasingly unlikely.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Allow me to help

Neil Clark over at Russia Today has written a piece and asked for some help, which I will attempt to give him forthwith. As usual, it is full of the same East vs. West, Russia vs. USA, state vs state, non-sequiturs and false equivalencies that have come to dominate the debate over Ukraine. 

The anti-government protestors in Ukraine during the winter received visits from several prominent Western politicians, including US Senator John McCain, and Victoria Nuland, from the US State Department, who handed out cookies. But there have been very large anti-government protests in many Western European countries in recent weeks, which have received no such support, either from such figures or from elite Western media commentators. Nor have protestors received free cookies from officials at the US State Department.Surely if they were so keen on anti-government street protests in Europe, and regarded them as the truest form of 'democracy', McCain and Nuland would also be showing solidarity with street protestors in Madrid, Rome, Athens and Paris? I'm confused. Can anyone help me?
I'll set aside my somewhat mild and nonplussed reaction to anyone taking John McCain going anywhere seriously to unpack this. John McCain is a Senator in the US Senate, one of one hundred such senators. He is a member of the opposition party, and lost to now President Obama in 2008. He has no real power, other than the fact that the US media has a love/hate relationship with him. John McCain's ability to order the military into Ukraine, to send money that isn't out of his own bank account, to do anything other than go and talk is the same as mine: absolutely nonexistent.  So why didn't John McCain go to France or Greece or Spain to help the protesters there topple their government? The better question is, why would it matter? Not only that, John McCain's track record for picking revolutionaries isn't stellar, having backed both Al Qaeda in Syria, and Al Qaeda in Libya. So again, why is it important to have John McCain go to Donetsk, is this what Neil Clark really wants? Does John McCain represent the will of the US state to Clark?

Victoria Nuland is an example of someone who is a career State Department and Foreign Service officer, and also someone who almost definitely has a different set of opinions than the president on how the world should work. Nuland is married to Robert Kagan, the neoconservative thinker and arch advocate for war with Iraq. Further, she's served in both Democratic and Republican regimes, most notably as an advisor to Former Vice President Dick Cheney. Now, to be totally accurate, President Barack Obama isn't exactly the antithesis of Dick Cheney that candidate Barack Obama appeared to be, and he did appoint her.

What can be gathered from Neil Clark analysis here is something that may be very foreign to someone inside the orbit of the Kremlin, namely that in a society as diverse as the United States, there can be different state officials, who at same time, hold different opinions. It may be that someone in the state apparatus even appoints someone with a differing opinion below them. It must sound crazy, but it indeed does happen. As evidence of this, see the controversial appointment of Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense. Hagel was lampooned and hectored during his nomination hearing by the same neoconservatives, and he is a member of John McCain's party! 

Next up, false equivalencies:

A few weeks ago I saw an interview with the US Secretary of State John Kerry who said“You just don't invade another country on phony pretexts in order to assert your interests.” But I seem to recall the US doing just that on more than one occasion in the past 20 years or so.Have I misremembered the 'Iraq has WMDs claim'? Was I dreaming back in 2002 and early 2003 when politicians and neocon pundits came on TV every day to tell us plebs that we had to go to war with Iraq because of the threat posed by Saddam's deadly arsenal? Why is having a democratic vote in Crimea on whether to rejoin Russia deemed worse than the brutal, murderous invasion of Iraq – an invasion which has led to the deaths of up to 1 million people? I'm confused. Can anyone help me?

Far be it for me to defend the Iraq war, which is indefensible and which I won't rehash here. The United States had, until after the American Civil War, the institution of slavery, does this mean that the United States shouldn't be able to talk about slavery? The United States, at one time, only allowed men to vote. Does this mean that the United States shouldn't be able to advocate for the rights of woman? The United States, at one time, interned Japanese citizens and those of Japanese ancestors in prison camps. Does this mean that the United States shouldn't be able to advocate for the right of peoples everywhere for due process? Further, what's happening today in Iraq doesn't mean that Russia is allowed to invade and annex parts of Ukraine, to send in irregulars, to undermine the sovereignty of another state. What is black today can't be white tomorrow. What's happening today in Ukraine is that Russia is reacting to a loss of its influence, and because the United States had slavery and killed Native Americans doesn't change that today, Russia has annexed Crimea, after lying about the presence of its troops there. I also can't resist musing about the Ukrainian famine of the 1930s, which was inflicted on Ukraine by the same Soviet government which built Donetsk, moved Russians there, and now sees their ancestors and also some people from Russia proper sitting in these buildings. In that famine, 7.5 million Ukrainians died. The Russian Federation is the successor government to the Soviet Union, and flags of the Soviet Union are routinely seen at the site of the protests in Donetsk and other places in Eastern Ukraine. Clearly though, the greater state massacre was the Iraq war, and of course, we are forced to choose one or the other by people like Neil Clark, because the idea that both could be wrong doesn't exist in the world of state conflict.  

On to Afghanistan, where the vote to annex Crimea should be whitewashed because Afghanistan's election wasn't cool either:

We were also told by very serious-looking Western politicians and media 'experts' that the Crimea referendum wasn't valid because it was held under “military occupation.” But I've just been watching coverage of elections in Afghanistan, held under military occupation, which have been hailed by leading western figures, such as NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen as a “historic moment for Afghanistan” and a great success for “democracy.” Why is the Crimean vote dismissed, but the Afghanistan vote celebrated? I'm confused. Can anyone help me?

Never mind that the international observers there were there came under attack and were forced to leave, or that generally elections aren't the best method at improving the lives of those in the territory anyway. Armed occupation and annexation isn't the best thing in the world for an area almost totally dependent on tourists from its former state monopolizer. I am, however, still waiting for the reports of international observers in Crimea, perhaps the OSCE's decision to label the vote illegal has some bearing on the hesitancy of others to verify the vote, including the UN. What is known is that the Russians militarily took over and occupied Crimea, and held a vote, at which, surprise! The vote was to allow the guys with the guns to stay.  Next up is Syria:

Syria too is rather baffling. We were and are told that radical Islamic terror groups pose the greatest threat to our peace, security and our 'way of life' in the West. That Al-Qaeda and other such groups need to be destroyed: that we needed to have a relentless 'War on Terror' against them. Yet in Syria, our leaders have been siding with such radical groups in their war against a secular government which respects the rights of religious minorities, including Christians. 
When the bombs of Al-Qaeda or their affiliates go off in Syria and innocent people are killed there is no condemnation from our leaders: their only condemnation has been of the secular Syrian government which is fighting radical Islamists and which our leaders and elite media commentators are desperate to have toppled. I'm confused. Can anyone help me?
I'll forget for a moment that the choice in Syria must be either between the likes of a thuggish dictator like Bashar al-Assad and Al Qaeda, and remind Clark that in the United States and in Europe, the people who actually live there and pay the bills killed this intervention, aside from something they couldn't stop, which is Obama sending arms to the "moderate" fighters there(?). The intervention and support that would have actually mattered, such as bombing Assad's troops, never occurred and for some of the very same reasons that Clark mentions here. Yet because, in the world of state vs state, we must of course embrace one evil rather than have another, we are led to believe by people like Clark that supporting Assad is somehow preferable because he isn't quite as bad. Supporting neither option, and staying out of the war altogether which is what the American people want and rose up to voice, isn't an option here. 

Then there's gay rights. We are told that Russia is a very bad and backward country because it has passed a law against promoting homosexuality to minors. Yet our leaders who boycotted the Winter Olympics in Sochi because of this law visit Gulf states where homosexuals can be imprisoned or even executed, and warmly embrace the rulers there, making no mention of the issue of gay rights. 
Surely the imprisonment or execution of gay people is far worse than a law which forbids promotion of homosexuality to minors? Why, if they are genuinely concerned about gay rights, do our leaders attack Russia and not countries that imprison or execute gay people? I'm confused. Can anyone help me?
While I personally don't advocate for collective rights of any kind, I would just tend to say that Russia, while being backward about gays, isn't nearly as backward as the Saudis. It is also true that Russia and Russian society is sane enough to respond to criticism about these issues without blowing people up, which is something that isn't as clear when talking about Saudi Arabia's society. The fact is that on this trip, Obama was attempting to mend the relationship with Saudi Arabia, for failing to support those same Al Qaeda fighters in Syria, for the mess in Egypt, and for not perpetrating a nuclear holocaust on Iran. The better question is how is the fact that the Russian state instituted some laws against gays or gay pornography or advocating for gays or for acknowledging that gay people exist or whatever it is, or that in Saudi Arabia someone receives lashes for attempting to drive a car, in the interest of the American people. Clearly, the US has decided that, in the case of the state of Saudi Arabia, it isn't the business of the US state to speak about how they repress their own people. Nor do I think there need be any uniform set of rules, not only because they would be immediately broken by someone from a smart rule bending society like Putin, but because I fear what they might actually look like. If Dick Cheney is in charge of uniform rule making for the US state, how many wars are there left to fight? Sometimes, sanity does prevail in US foreign policy, but the only rule I hope to see observed is nonintervention, and that one is clearly being broken by all sides in Ukraine.

Also, Clark fails to consider what it means that Russia, like the United States, has transcended its borders and gone abroad to influence the affairs of others, which is exactly what Clark spends a lot of the article criticizing the US for. Of course, there's no deeper thought about what it means if Russia continues to use its influence in areas abroad, and exports its growing domestic oppression, and whether or not this could become just as bad as US interventions under Bush. I'm sure Clark would respond that the US is also growing in its domestic oppression, which of course is very valid, but again, we don't have to chose state A or state B. As Rothbard puts it:

How far States have transcended rules of civi-lized warfare in this century needs no elaboration here. In the modern era of total war, combined with the technology of total destruction, the very idea of keeping war limited to the State apparati seems even more quaint and obsolete than the original Constitution of the United States.

So yes, because of Iraq, we should well ignore what people like Putin are doing to oppose the United States, because only in this way will we see that there is only good vs. evil in this world, and events can't be viewed in isolation. Perhaps then, in Clark's view, it's useful to ask what Putin would do to separatists in his own country, who wanted independence. Unfortunately, we have the answer:

Grozny, Chechnya, Russian Federation

So choose wisely, Russia or the US, East or West, State A or State B. 

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Can the Ukranians hold on to the east?

It looks like the answer is increasingly no.  The large "anti terror" operations to "liberate" the east of Ukraine from Russian backed separatists has gotten off to an extremely slow and clumsy start.  None of the cities where police and administrative buildings were occupied by Russian separatist militias and Russian irregulars have been reclaimed. The airport outside of Kramatorsk has been retaken, but little else has been accomplished. That also may have made the situation here worse, if the picture below can be believed, the general in charge of that operation met some angry locals:

NYT reports that APCs are now on the scene in Kramatorsk, and may have come from this same force that liberated the airport:

Ukrainian news media reported that pro-Russian militias commandeered the vehicles from the Ukrainian Army. They parked in the central square of the town, where a crowd gathered to gape at the squat, tracked vehicles and at a red, white and blue flag flapping in the breeze.
About a hundred soldiers in unmarked green uniforms and bearing the equipment of professional infantry guarded the vehicles, but other than the single Russian flag, they showed no signs of allegiance. Some of the soldiers had grenade launchers slung over their shoulders.
If the vehicles were indeed seized from the Ukrainian Army, it was not immediately clear whether they had been taken by force or with the collusion of defecting Ukrainian troops. Either possibility, however, would signal an escalation by Russian-backed militants in eastern Ukraine.

Full article:

I think the government in Kiev better hope that things don't get any worse for them. 

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Breaking: Ukraine begins to respond.

Reports of explosions near Donetsk as the operation has begun against the Russian separatists.

WSJ reports.

Update 1: 

Picture was taken of Ukranian forces 70km or 44 miles from Sloviansk, which is where a Ukranian officer was killed on Saturday.

Update 2:

Airport reportedly being used again near Sloviansk, closed over weekend.  No word on why.

Update 3:

State power has its limits:

People surround and stop tank in Sloviansk while soldiers negotiate.

Monday, April 14, 2014

All quiet on the eastern front

For now, the authorities in Kiev's threat to use force to put down the Russian back separatist movement in eastern Ukraine appears to be empty and hollow. As discussed earlier, the situation in the east of Ukraine is quiet different, with the cities being largely Russian speakers, and the countryside made up of a lot of Ukrainians. Wherever the territories end up, there will be ethnic displacement. Interestingly, not all of the Russians in the east of Ukraine want to be a part of Russia. As confided by opinion polls and also by interviews, the Russian speakers there definitely don't trust the Kiev authorities, but they're not so sure that Russia (and Putin) are the answer either. They mainly want more autonomy for their region. Historically, these regions haven't had this autonomy from the central authorities in Ukraine, so it will be interesting to see if its granted.

The other idea being floated right now is the peacekeeping option, but the Russian's will never allow this to take place. The last thing they want is any international force monitoring what they're doing there, and with good reason.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Russian tactics in Eastern Ukraine and possible next moves

The Russian tactics in Eastern Ukraine mirror those used by the Russians in Crimea with some possible key differences.  From what can be gathered from first hand twitter accounts and youtube "as it happened" videos, there are some clear trends.

First, uniformed Russian special forces move into a city and take over the local administration buildings and police headquarters.  The police headquarters in Slavyansk is a perfect example (see video #1 below)

Earlier today there were numerous other videos of this event that have since been taken down.  (another example here, probably the best one).

After this, pro Russian locals are brought in to help man the barricades and for propaganda purposes. 

The next step is to set up a new city government and say that there will be a referendum on the status of the region (In this case the "Republic of Donetsk").  Presumably the Russian Special forces then melt away.  Most of the Russia Today coverage downplays the role of guys in the picture such as below: 

The reason the buildings are targeted and patterned in this way is to mirror the Maidan protests to maximize the hypocrisy of removing the demonstrators and a "democratic" process. It should also be noted that the protest movements in Donetsk, Kharkiv, and other eastern cities that began the newest round of turmoil didn't fit this pattern, but this plan was obviously already in place because it is carefully coordinated.

The path for a Russian invasion would be cleared as any local law enforcement or other Ukrainian state apparatus are forced to leave the area. What the Russians probably expected was Kiev's response to be forthcoming, and this could be a possible pretext for a wholesale invasion. The Ukrainians also claim that they have rock solid proof that Russia is behind a lot of this turmoil, giving voice and evidence to the obvious, which as the videos clearly demonstrate, this is not a group of local activists, these are trained irregular troops.

The response from Kiev, which is going to be a large scale military ("anti terrorist") operation will test the abilities of the Ukrainians and also the loyalty of their troops.  Further, the areas of Eastern Ukraine, although overwhelmingly Russian in the cities, contain a large number of Ukrainians and have never had the autonomy that Crimea was afforded, so the situation is quite different. Other than these irregulars, Kiev should have the advantage in number and manpower (assuming the Russians don't invade to support the "uprising").  It could become serious, as the Russian irregulars are going to be in a war zone very soon, and any deaths would put further pressure (or reason) on Putin to intervene. Barring Russian intervention, the protest movements should be put down, but that is assuming a lot both about the abilities of the Ukrainian army and the loyalty of the troops.  

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