Amid Chaos, a Humiliating and Dangerous Defeat for Ukraine

REUTERS/Marko DjuricaIn Russia’s takeover of southeast Ukraine – which President Vladimir Putin is characterizing as a recovery of old Russian provinces lost in the 1920s – this week’s ineffectiveness and weakness of Ukraine’s government and armed forces are visible almost everywhere.

More than twenty Ukrainian armored personnel carriers are halted in their drive eastward to try to take back control of towns where Russian troops have either led or backed the ouster of local Ukrainian officials and police. Six of those vehicles are seized by pro-Russian militants; the rest are disarmed and allowed to retreat to their base.  The city hall of the southeast’s largest city, Donetsk, is seized by armed militants.

The humiliation of Ukraine’s military is dramatically visible in the glum faces of soldiers sitting atop their armored vehicles, confronted by local residents who halted their advance. (These civilians have been backed in some cases by the presence, at a short distance, of the Russian commandos whose presence in Ukraine is formally denied by Moscow.)

A TV reporter’s video posted by Ukrainian news websites, including Ukrainska Pravda shows hapless Ukrainian troops sitting atop an APC in the Donetsk provincial city of Kramatorsk. The reporter thrusts her microphone up toward one young man, who says he’s a reservist engineer, recently called up amid the crisis. Asked the “How-do-you-feel” question, he first responds tersely: “It’s bad.” Then, as the reporter presses, he adds: “Such things are happening in my country, I should feel good about this?

Finally, he becomes emotional: “Our country is being torn to bits. How do you think we feel about that? Today my country exists, but tomorrow it may no longer be here. How am I supposed to feel about that? They are tearing down the flag of my country here, how do you want me to feel?” Now tearful, the soldier turns away and buries his face in his arm.

A sympathetic voice calls out from the crowd: “This has nothing to do with these boys. Let the politicians figure this out — these boys are not guilty of anything.”

In Donetsk: An Ugly, Anti-Semitic Moment

A menacing event that harked back to the Nazi occupation of Ukraine is reported by an independent website in Donetsk, the industrial city of 1 million that is the effective capital of the Donbass (Donetsk Basin), as southeasternmost Ukraine is known. The site, Novosti Donbassa, reported Tuesday that three masked men carrying a Russian flag put up leaflets around the Donetsk synagogue ordering Jews to register with the pro-Russian administration calling itself the “Donetsk People’s Republic.”

“Because Jewish leaders have supported the illegal junta in Kyiv and are not friendly to the Orthodox [Christian] Donetsk republic and its citizens, the leadership of the Donetsk republic decrees that all citizens of Jewish nationality older than sixteen report to Room 514 in the Donetsk state administration for registration.”  The leaflets are signed in the name of the Donetsk People’s Republic’s chairman, Denis Pushilin, and bear the movement’s stamp. They threaten Jews who do not register with seizure of property. Jewish leaders said this was an attempt to provoke them to attack the separatists. Pushilin denied issuing the letter and said it was a “provocation” against him, Russia’s Dozhd television reported.

The five-month-old battle over Ukraine’s future alignment – either closer to Europe or, as Putin insists, closer to Russia – has dragged Ukraine’s 300,000-strong Jewish community into the maelstrom. Anti-Semitism has scarred both Russian and Ukrainian history. Putin and the Russian government have accused the new Ukrainian government of anti-Semitism, a charge that the government has denied and Ukraine’s Jewish community has dismissed.

Caught in the Middle: Ukraine’s Party of Regions

The main political party of eastern Ukraine, the Party of Regions of former President Viktor Yanukovych, is scrambling for a foothold as Russian troops and influence gather on their territory. The party has ruled eastern Ukraine for a decade, and used Russian nationalism and separatism as political rallying cries. But now Russia is implementing that separatism without them, and the eastern Ukrainian business elites that have backed the party fear that they will be reduced to much more minor roles if they are drawn into a Russia that is much more authoritarian than the Ukrainian state in which they won their wealth and power.

So the Party of Regions is scrambling for some tenable middle position between the Russian troops and allied militants on one side, and the notion of an undivided Ukrainian state on the other. The party leadership in Donetsk province issued a statement calling on those who have seized administration buildings to end those occupations.. “Please, lay down your arms and do not put your peaceful countrymen in danger” it said.

The party also called for a referendum to decide the issues that are the visible tip of the struggle for control between Kyiv and Moscow. These include what official status the Russian language should have in the Ukrainian state, and how much political power should be given to provincial governments that, in the east, could then align themselves more with Russia.

The Donetsk branch of the Party of Regions summoned its deputies for an emergency congress on Ukraine’s crisis. The delegates’ call for a steps to be taken judiciously avoided using Moscow’s preferred term – “federalization” – for the constitutional change that Russia has demanded in Ukraine.

Leaders of the Party of Regions have failed in efforts to play a mediating role with the separatists. Ukraine’s richest man and the most influential player in the Donbass, industrialist Renat Akhmetov also was rebuffed by the militants when he tried to do so. Critics called his effort a cynical attempt to play both sides aimed simply to protect his business interests. 

The Next Battlefields: Dnipropetrovsk, Mariupol?

The war spread today to Mariupol, an industrial city and strategic seaport west of Donetsk, when Ukrainian troops fired on a crowd that included masked, armed soldiers or militiamen trying to seize their base. At least three people were reported dead and the Ukrainian troops detained dozens of people, releasing some of them later.

Local authorities in Dnipropetrovsk yesterday said that armed militants were preparing to move the 130 miles northwest from Donetsk to Dnipropetrovsk, a thrust from the edge of eastern Ukraine toward the country’s center. Dnipropetrovsk is a strategic prize in the struggle for Ukraine, both for its command of traffic on the Dnipro River, which divides the country roughly in half, and for the presence there of Yuzhmash, the manufacturer of military and space rockets and engines upon which the Soviet Union and Russia have relied for years.

In Dnipropetrovsk , local authorities have set up roadblocks in an attempt to bar the entry of pro-Russian militants and/or troops, and thus to prevent a repeat of the city takeovers in the Donbass. Dnipropetrovsk Lieutenant Governor Borys Filatov writes on his Facebook page that the real reason for the unrest in Donetsk is poverty. “Yanukovych and his clique have cheated these people”, he writes, “and today they are provoking them to separatism, passing out money that they stole from them, promising them a future in our neighboring, unfriendly country”. Bulatov, a wealthy owner of shopping malls and other businesses in Dnipropetrovsk, proposes to help those “Donetsk brothers who have lost their way.” He offers $1000 for every captured rifle and $10,000 for every captured “little green man,” as the militants and Russian troops in unmarked camouflage uniforms are called. And he’ll pay  $200,000 for every administration building returned to the local authorities. But with Ukraine’s government humiliated and ineffective in its response, and the initiative still with the Russian side, he has had no takers for his reward offer.

Easter: Will Yanukovych Be Risen, Indeed?

Easter this year falls on the same Sunday, April 20, both for Roman Catholics Christians and for the Orthodox Christian churches. As the faithful prepare to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Russian-backed governor of Crimea, Sergey Aksyonov, tweeted that Ukrainians also should prepare for the return on that day of President Viktor Yanukovych, who fled Kyiv for Russia after his police forces failed to crush the pro-Europe and anti-corruption demonstrations there in February. Aksyonov did not specify where, or to which of his supporters Yanukovych would appear in his resurrection.

Image: A fighter jet flies above as Ukrainian soldiers sit on an armoured personnel carrier in Kramatorsk, in eastern Ukraine April 16, 2014. REUTERS/Marko Djurica