It’s all too easy to imagine the high-level meeting in Kiev where the Ukrainian government decided on its next move. It probably sounded a bit like this: “Very well, gentlemen, we are agreed on our strategy for dealing with the Russians. First we will figure out exactly what they are trying to force us to do. And then we’ll do it.”
It sounds stupid when you put it like that, but this does appear to be the Ukrainian strategy in a nutshell. Or as Ukrainian Security Service General Vasyl Krutov put it, “They [separatists] must be warned that if they do not lay down their arms, they will be destroyed.”
As I write this, the first reports are coming in of Ukrainian troops trying to take back control of occupied government buildings in the east of the country by force. This cannot be done without killing people. And that is exactly what the Russians want.
The provisional government of Ukraine does have a serious problem in the east, of course. It is trying to organize a national election in less than six weeks’ time that will produce a government whose legitimacy nobody can question. There may be a referendum on constitutional reform at the same time. It will be harder to do that credibly if government buildings in half a dozen eastern cities are occupied by armed men.
On the other hand, if Russia’s President Vladimir Putin really wants to seize control of eastern Ukraine, or even all the parts of Ukraine where there are significant numbers of Russian-speakers, what he needs is a pretext. It’s already clear from Russian official statements what that pretext would be: that the “fascist puppet government” in Kiev is “killing its own citizens” just because they are Russians or Russian-speakers.
It is doubtful that all or even most of the heavily armed men in the occupied buildings are actually Ukrainian citizens. There was no separatist political organization in the east before the revolution that was capable of producing hundreds of volunteers with military training, wearing identical uniforms and carrying identical Russian-made weapons, and using them to seize multiple targets in different cities simultaneously.
It looks like Crimea all over again: a lot of the “local militia” there were also really Spetsnaz (Russian special forces). But there is a big difference: the Donbas, the region where Donetsk and the other affected cities are located, does not contain a civilian majority that actually wants to be ruled by Russia. If it did, the pro-Russians could just come out in nonviolent crowds, like the protesters did in Kiev, and take control of the region peacefully.
The Crimean tactics won’t work in the Donbas, because most people there see themselves as Ukrainian even though they speak Russian on a daily basis. So there are no peaceful mass protests demanding “unification” with Russia, and the small groups of armed men who have seized buildings in various cities will only provide a usable pretext for a Russian invasion if some of them are killed by Ukrainian government forces.
The truth, mercifully withheld from the soldiers in the occupied buildings, is that they are there to provide some martyrs — and when they die, Spetsnaz or not, they will be portrayed as local people killed by the government in Kiev. Then the Russian forces will move, to “save” the oppressed Russian-speakers of eastern Ukraine from the fascists in Kiev.
So why is the Ukrainian government going to provide Vladimir Putin with exactly that pretext by attacking the buildings in question? It would be inconvenient, but quite possible, just to blockade them, leave them in Russian hands and carry on the election around them. Or, if the authorities in Kiev find that too embarrassing, then just cut off the water and wait for the occupiers to come out peacefully. A week or two should be enough.
You would think that the government in Kiev, which came to power itself by mainly nonviolent means and finally won when the Yanukovych government discredited itself by the massive use of force, would understand the importance of not killing people. You would, it appears, be wrong to think that.
Maybe this conclusion is premature. Maybe, when the “volunteers” occupying the government buildings don’t flee at the first shots – and they won’t; these guys are professionals – the Ukrainian troops will be ordered to stop. Common sense could yet prevail. But the Kiev government has been doing the wrong things in the east for so long that a last-minute change of heart seems unlikely.
And, by the way, could somebody please explain to the Central Intelligence Agency why the optics of sending John Brennan, the director of the CIA, to Kiev last Sunday were so bad? And why swatting the critics away by saying that it was just a “routine” visit made matters worse?
Governments that are “routinely” visited by the head of the CIA are usually puppet governments. In this case, it’s not so much a puppet government as a very stupid government.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist and military analyst based in London.