April 9, 2014

“New Separatist “”Protests”” in Eastern Ukraine: Endgame or Opening Gambit? “

As tensions dramatically increase in key eastern cities like Luhansk, Kharkiv, and Donetsk, there is a great deal of concern about the continued Russian military deployment along the border of Ukraine, especially given that this force, as NATO has observed, is “sized and outfitted and provisioned with everything that it needs to have an incursion” into the country.

As tensions dramatically increase in key eastern cities like Luhansk, Kharkiv, and Donetsk, there is a great deal of concern about the continued Russian military deployment along the border of Ukraine, especially given that this force, as NATO has observed, is “sized and outfitted and provisioned with everything that it needs to have an incursion” into the country.

Nonetheless, a full-scale military invasion of Ukraine is not the most likely possibility. It appears that Moscow’s intention is to take control of these cities not from without, but from within.

There has already been evidence that Russians, whether volunteer “tourists” or forces specially trained to foment disturbances such as the GRU [military intelligence] agents arrested along the border by Ukrainian authorities on the 6th, have participated in the disturbances inside these cities. And there are scattered other reports that, as in Crimea, some of the “local separatists” may be Russian special forces troops out of uniform.

The model of having these “local protesters” forcefully taking over the local legislative building, holding an “independence” vote, calling for a referendum, and then demanding Russian “protection” seems to be currently unfolding in Eastern Ukraine. (Anne Applebaum noted that some Russian tanks near the UA border bore “peacekeeping” markings like those seen in South Ossetia or Transnistria). The Russian foreign minister declared yesterday that he wanted to see these regions represented in multilateral talks—and by “regions,” of course, he means those self-declared authorities who pushed or fought their way into government buildings to unilaterally declare independence, as in Donetsk and Kharkiv.

Taken together, these steps—the seemingly-coordinated outbreaks of “separatist” violence, the obvious deployment of troops ready for invasion; and the sudden massive increase in the price Ukraine must pay for natural gas to $485 per thousand cubic meters, the highest charged to any European customer (31% higher than the average of $370)—seem part of a comprehensive strategy at intimidating the Ukrainian government into making major concessions at the negotiating table—and we should recall that previous governments in Kyiv, including one under Yulia Tymoshenko, have done just that.

For now, Ukraine has responded relatively vigorously to the escalating separatist crisis in its southeast. Its fighter jets can now be seen patrolling the skies above Kharkiv and Donetsk, while in those two cities separatists were removed from some occupied buildings in police “anti-terrorist operations,” thankfully without casualties thus far. And in the event of a more significant Russian military push, Ukraine has shown signs that resistance is much more likely; it has begun a military draft in the affected regions while transferring in law-enforcement troops from areas seen as more loyal to Kyiv.

Yet even discounting any new moves to escalate the conflict from outside, it will not be easy to end the unrest in these cities quickly. While the numbers are far, far smaller in e.g. Donetsk (400-500, as estimated by Western journalists on the ground, compared to tens of thousands in the Euromaidan at its height), those individuals are now well-prepared for combat (with Molotov cocktails, barricades, etc at the ready), and have moreover been willing to resort to tactics not previously utilized in the country, such as yesterday’s hostage-taking in buildings primed with explosives by the self-proclaimed “Army of the Southeast” in Luhansk. Going forward, therefore, the Ukrainian government is likely to avoid handing Russia the propaganda card that a bloody struggle to restore order would inevitably become—and unfortunately, at this juncture it seems that no end to this phase of the crisis is in sight.

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