War Nerd: What’s happening in Eastern Ukraine is very simple, rational, and straightforward

By Gary Brecher , written on May 30, 2014

From The News Desk

“Heaven and earth are not merciful. To them, men are as straw dogs, destined for sacrifice.” - Lao Tzu
What’s happening in Eastern Ukraine is very simple, rational, and straightforward.

Russia has what it wanted—Crimea, a Russian-majority peninsula with better beaches than the rest of Russia put together, a Russian majority, and a geography so eminently defensible that all you have to do is look at it on a map and it screams “Secede!

What’s going on in Eastern Ukraine, a very different Russian-majority region, is a sideshow, as far as Putin and his schemers are concerned. This sideshow has two audiences. The first, as Mark Ames explained in his article, “Sorry, America, Ukraine Isn’t All about You,” is a domestic one, Russia’s “silent majority. “ As Ames explained, Putin has used the violence to keep that silent majority in an angry, nationalist mood:

It goes without saying that Putin didn’t plan this crisis to happen — he already had his man in power in Kyiv. But Putin did exploit the situation, turning a major humiliating defeat in February into a massive political victory within Russia by doing what the Silent Majority would’ve wanted Putin to do: Redress grievances, air out resentments nonstop against the West and against west Ukraine fascists, and screw whatever the West thinks.
The other audience is Putin’s colleagues in power—in Kyiv, Brussels, and Washington. Russia has already managed to shift the focus of international attention from Crimea, which Russia really wanted and now possesses, to Eastern Ukraine. Crimea has become a classic “fait accompli,” the goal of this kind of old-school Great Power game.

Ukraine has been forced to give up any pressure on Crimea, whether military or political, in order to put out the ethnic Russian insurgency in the East. This is a real, grassroots ethnic uprising, born out of long-standing resentment of Ukrainian attempts to enforce a vindictive, petty form of Ukrainian nationalism, full of sentimentality about the wide grasslands and little Ukrainian-speaking villages, on Eastern Ukraine, which is urban, Russian, and industrial. After Crimea showed, or seemed to show, how easy it was to secede from this vindictive Ukrainian regime and rejoin Russia, ethnic Russians in Donetsk, Sloviansk and other Eastern cities naturally attempted to duplicate the quick, easy separation Crimea accomplished.

That didn’t happen because Putin infiltrated the ranks of the Eastern Ukrainian Russian militias. We’re seeing ridiculous stories to that effect, like one in the New York Times headlined “Russians Revealed among Ukraine Fighters.”

No kidding—Russians are among the members of an ethnic-Russian militia in a Russian-majority area of Ukraine, bordering Russia? Scary stuff!

Some of these Russians, the NYT discovered, come from Grozny in Chechnya, or Crimea, or other areas now outside Russia. That’s hardly surprising, because when the USSR dissolved itself in 1991, huge areas with ethnic Russian majorities were abandoned to the tender mercies of other ethnic groups which began enforcing anti-Russian policies. Russians in Kazakhstan, the Baltic States, and even lowly Moldova encounter daily hostility, paying for decisions the Soviet Union made without consulting them as it played Great-Power politics.

And yet ethnic Russians, both in Putin’s constituency in Russia, and among ethnic Russian communities shut out of the Russian Federation, like the cities of Eastern Ukraine, continue to be willing to give their lives for Russia. Their grievances, their love for Russia, and their courage are real, not the creation of SpetzNaz or security-service infiltration as jingoistic American journalists like Eli Lake keep claiming.

But those noble qualities, and the lives of the people who hold them, are just expendable assets—straw dogs—to cold-eyed practitioners of Great-Power politics like Putin. They’re fighting at this moment to form a Russian secessionist republic in Eastern Ukraine, but the odds they’ll meet anything but betrayal from Moscow are very dim.

Does Putin really want to annex Eastern Ukraine? It’s not clear to me that he does. It’s very clear that the Russian state wanted Crimea, and was willing to risk war for it. It’s not so clear that Moscow will risk war for Eastern Ukraine, which does have valuable resources and major industrial installations, but lacks Crimea’s easily-sealed entry points.

The alternatives here, for Moscow, are not either outright annexation or total disengagement. It’s naïve to think that Moscow has to say a simple yes or no to the militias fighting in Russia’s name in Donetsk and Sloviansk. The history of Great-Power politics shows that in many cases, it’s much more useful to leave a disputed, ethnically-mixed area festering, giving your proxies there just enough weaponry, money, and moral support to keep them bleeding the occupying enemy.

Kashmir is the classic example in the contemporary world. Does Pakistan really want to take Kashmir, with its hopelessly messy, complex, bloody feuds, into Pakistan proper? Officially, yes; and in the minds of the millions of Pakistani nationalists, of course it does. But for the ISI, the intelligence agents who run the country, it’s much more useful to have Kashmir as a goad, an irritant, a reliable source of nationalist rage and suicide volunteers, than it would be to march in and try to govern the place.

So, despite the valid grievances of the Eastern Ukrainian Russian community, despite all the nationalist rage Putin is stirring up among nationalists in Russia proper, the Russian government may let Eastern Ukraine’s Russian militias be ground down by troops, tanks, and aircraft from Kyiv.

Not wiped out—that would be a waste of potentially useful proxies. But decimated, occupied, and humiliated. A population in that condition is as useful to a Great Power as Kashmir’s Muslims are to Pakistan.

This is one of the tragedies of Russian history. There’s never been a shortage of courage and faith among the Russian people—but those qualities have almost always been exploited by rulers who were unworthy of them, and in fact held them in contempt.

In the last few days, Russian militia members have been slaughtered in Donetsk, and the tame Russian press has been publishing stories about “Dozens of victims” filling the morgues. You can read the comments in these articles and see the rage at Ukraine and its nationalist ultras like Dmytro Yarosh of the quasi-fascist Ukrainian Right Sector militia, whose hate for all ethnic Russians is legend. With villains like that, and martyrs like the ones piled up in the photos from the Donetsk morgue, Putin has the ingredients for great propaganda.

But there are no sentimentalists in the Kremlin. Photos like this are useful; that’s all. Putin’s people take a more Taoist approach: “To them, men are like straw dogs, destined for sacrifice.” These deaths help to distract world attention from Crimea, keep Kyiv busy, and force it to the negotiating table in a more accommodating mood.

The new leader of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, understands what’s happening in Donetsk perfectly well: ‘‘Russia’s goal was, and is, to keep Ukraine so unstable that we accept everything that the Russians want,’’ Poroshenko said in the interview. ‘‘I have no doubt that Putin could, with his direct influence, end the fighting.’’

Sure, Putin could end the fighting, but that would be a waste of combustible human material—and it’s a rule of Great Power politics that you never burn your straw dogs wastefully. Like Poroshenko says, Russia’s goal here is not to annex Eastern Ukraine—not at the moment, anyway. In the long run, perhaps. But it’s too soon to send tanks over the border with the Russian flag flying. Much better to stir this new Kashmir, let it simmer, use its misery.

Ukraine knows Russia will not defend the expendable Russian militias in the east with real force. That’s why Poroshenko felt safe ordering a full-scale conventional military operation to retake the Donetsk Airport. He knew Russia would let its militia friends down this time. The authorities who rule Russia have never been sentimental about sacrificing a straw dog or two, no matter how loyal.

Throughout the last century, the Soviets sacrificed loyal friends again and again in the name of Great-Power games. They betrayed pro-Soviet communist parties in Jordan and Egypt, trading them in like chips at a casino for a deal with the local military elites.

They disemboweled the Spanish Left as it was fighting for its life, far more worried about deviations from the Stalinist “Line” than about letting Franco’s mercenaries overrun the whole country, and even handed German Communist refugees back to the Nazis.

That seems shocking now, but at the time it was just business as usual for Stalin, who was much more interested, even enthusiastic, about very traditional Great-Power politics than ideological solidarity. To him, those German comrades were straw dogs—and Putin, a very traditional Soviet apparatchik, trained and molded by the old security agencies, thinks exactly the same way. Putin differs from the Soviets in only one respect: He’s much more willing to back up allies who are worth keeping. He proved that when he ignored all the empty threats of boycott and intervention to keep Crimea.

But again, that was Crimea; that was worth keeping. Donetsk isn’t. That doesn’t mean Moscow will totally abandon its proxies there. It will do what any traditional Great Power would do: Let some of them die, keep promising to help—and providing some help, a few advanced weapons and a few squads of Chechen mercenaries—but just enough to keep things stirred up. Then, if there’s another problem with Ukraine—say something in Kharkov, another hot spot—Moscow activates its local allies, who can be counted on to be as gullible and eager to die as ever. It’s a cold game, but one the US is, let’s say, not entirely unfamiliar with. Just ask the Iraqi Kurds and the Shia of the South. When the Kurds responded to US provocations, leaflet campaigns, and promises by rising up against Saddam in 1991, Bush Senior let them be slaughtered.

I was in touch, occasionally, with someone in the DIA who’d taken part in getting the Kurds to rise up, and asked him how he could live with himself after that. He shrugged and said, “They’re just animals.” Which made me sick, actually, because I lived there and let me tell you, the Kurds of Northern Iraq are some of the best people I ever met. A lot smarter and tougher than the average American, that’s for sure. But that’s how Great-Power apparatchiks think, whether they live in Alexandria or Kitai-Gorod.

Every American pundit knows we stirred up the Kurds and Shia, knowing full well they were going to burn them and their families. Straw dogs, all of them. But none of those pundits seems to have lost any sleep about it, and none of them remember well enough to see the same thing happening right now in Donetsk.

In fact, the usual suspect intellects are lining up to be wrong about Eastern Ukraine. In the lead, as always, is Tom Friedman, the Michael Jordan of wrong. Tom came up with a simple take: “Putin Blinked.” What a headline! It’s not just wrong as an interpretation of events in Donetsk, it’s physiologically wrong as a description of Putin. That lizard-man couldn’t blink if he wanted to. I think he has a specially adapted transparent scale that can close when needed, like some desert reptiles.

In the end, it was Putinism versus Obamaism, and I’d like to be the first on my block to declare that the “other fellow” — Putin — “just blinked.”

In fact, I’d like to say more: Putin got pretty much everything wrong in Ukraine. He thought the world was still shaped by “spheres of influence” dictated from the top down, when Ukraine was all about the emergence of “people of influence” — The Square People, organized from the bottom up and eager to join their own sphere: the world of liberty and free markets represented by the European Union.

Putin underestimated Ukrainian patriotism; even many Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine did not like pro-Putin thugs trying to force them to join Russia. “Ukrainians have said in opinion polls that they want open borders and visa-free access to Russia,” noted the pollster Craig Charney. “But they also said in those polls — and confirmed with their majority vote for a pro-European candidate in Sunday’s election — that while they think Russia is a nice place to visit, they wouldn’t want to live there.” There aren’t many times in my life when I’ve wanted to say “OMG” in sorority-girl italics, but I think this is one of them. OM friggin’ G. Where do you start? For me, it’s that phrase ‘the other fellow’. Who are you, Clark Gable? Friedman says that Putin’s so-called blink on Eastern Ukraine is proof that we’ve entered the 21st century, but his dialog coach must have left to do the Charleston halfway through the article. Then there’s the less fun but still significant fact that every single goddamn thing he says is nonsense.

The victory Friedman’s talking about is a moral one; Russia’s annexation of Crimea is concrete enough to have satisfied even Stalin or Lord Palmerston and the only real setback Friedman can attribute to this annexation is a new gas deal signed by Russia and China. If that’s the kind of punishment you get for annexing a territory you’ve craved for decades, then I think the cold-eyed bastards who keep the lights on in the Kremlin until late will be able to handle it.

Then there’s my old pal Eli Lake. In an article I wrote about Ukraine in February, I teased Eli a little, “insulted him a little bit” as DeNiro would say, by saying that he was making up the claim that Russian Spetznaz infiltrators, the “outside agitators”, beloved of authoritarian journalists everywhere, were behind all the trouble. Eli’s position has been that every manifestation of Russian separatism is fake, some kind of militarized astro-turf movement micromanaged by evil colonels in Moscow.

Eli thought his Russian-invasion thesis had been vindicated all to Hell in mid-April, when pro-Russian separatists started occupying buildings all over Eastern Ukraine. For Eli, that was proof that it was an old Moscovite conspiracy with the Red Tide pouring into the Eastern half of Ukraine, like in those Cold War animations. He couldn’t resist gloating a little, not that I’m against gloating, enjoy it myself, but if I do say so I handle it a little better than this fuckin’ amateur of a Tweet:

— Max Fisher (@Max_Fisher) April 13, 2014 Ah, poor Eli. Ridin’ high in April, but then April’s the cruelest month, though they all tend to be pretty mean if you’re a neocon given to making predictions. Those occupations came and went, with half lives like those elements at the end of the table that you can only see with a Ph.D. They were genuine popular movements by an ethnic minority, which happens to be Russian, making it immediately suspect in Eli’s view. And if it was able to occupy a few public buildings, that had much more to do with the ridiculous weakness and incompetence of the Kiev regime than with any real support from Moscow.

And those poor bastards are now being betrayed in classic Great Power style as anybody but a fool, or an American pundit (to repeat myself), should have seen.

[illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]