The agony of Ukraine: how to keep Putin's Russia at bay

Feb 21, 2014
Robert Fox

Pussy Riot shows the way: social media coverage is the best answer to Kiev's 'wicked problem'

WHEN it comes to the crisis in Kiev and the agony of Ukraine, the word 'complex' is bandied freely by pundits far and wide.

Sure, Ukraine is a deeply divided, ethnic mix - but, frankly, not that mixed. More than three-quarters of those who live there are Ukrainian, under 18 per cent are ethnic Russian, and under five per cent are of other stock, including Greek, Turkish and Jewish.

Ukraine was one of the richest, and at times most reluctant, components of the USSR. Now, Vladimir Putin wants it to be a partner of his post-Soviet imperium through a customs union, sweetened by the offer of cut-price Russian gas.

Accordingly President Viktor Yanukovych chose the Russian union against the EU offer of association and a generous trade deal.

What Yanukovych didn't bargain for was the accumulation of protest that would greet his decision. This week it has led to running battles between the state police, who have resorted to sniper rifles and light machine guns, and the protesters who are becoming increasingly armed. And a death toll of 75.

From Thursday night's events, it is clear that the Interior Ministry forces and the police can no longer hold the capital. Overnight they set up sandbagged sniper positions in the upper floors of the president's office to make a last stand.

On the streets, activists have been forming 'hundreds' - sotni - a traditional term for a unit of Cossack cavalry. Other groups of nationalists have emerged in the protests such as Patriots of Ukraine, Trident and White Hammer under the umbrella of the Right Sector coalition.

Some trace their lineage back to the wartime nationalist Stepan Bandera, who declared an independent state of Western Ukraine as the Soviet forces retreated in 1941 - only to be captured and imprisoned by the invading Germans.

Romano Prodi, the former president of the EU commission and ex-prime minister of Italy, roundly condemned the protesters' use of firepower and violence in Thursday's New York Times, but cogently argued that this was no excuse for Yanukovych to call on his friend Putin to help out by sending in Russian military muscle.

Probably just as disastrous for Yanukovych would be to order in Ukraine's own army, traditionally neutral, as opposed to the police and security forces.

He has been shuffling appointments in the army's high command over the past three months, in order to get his men in place should he decide to declare martial law. But Ukraine's army, a byword for corruption and graft when it was deployed alongside Nato forces in peacekeeping in the Balkans, is deeply divided. It is thought it would split if ordered onto the streets, with up to a half going over to the protesters.

In the new geopolitical jargon, there are 'wicked problems' -  that is, problems with no solution - and 'complex puzzles', ones that may have some way out, however tortuous and difficult it proves to be. Ukraine this weekend is teetering between the two.

Yanukovych appears to have offered some respite by offering elections. But a simple rerun of what happened in 2010 - elections Yanukovych won - will not suffice. A wholesale constitutional overhaul is required with representation and rights of minorities and parties guaranteed.

There must also be a declaration of non-interference from Moscow, Washington and Brussels. In the meantime,  the foreign ministers of Europe, led by Laurent Fabius of France and Radislaw Sikorksy of Poland, must hang on in there in Kiev as they have much of this week, quite literally.

For all the bluster, the position of Vladimir Putin is not as strong as it might appear. This is not like Prague in 1968 or Georgia in 2008 when Moscow could deploy its tank columns almost without prejudice. Given the chronic state of separatist and Islamist insurgency in the Caucasus, not to mention Putin's internal security problems, Russian military interference is surely unrealistic.

Ukraine is now in the grip of spontaneous communal combustion - modern versions of jacqueries (medieval French peasants' revolts) - in more than half a dozen major centres which the Russian military wouldn't be capable of controlling, shy of putting in a force of more than 100,000.

But the biggest warning to Putin as to why this isn't Prague '68 or Georgia '08 is given eloquently by Maria Alyokhina, founder member of Pussy Riot, about her arrest in Sochi, printed today in the New York Times.

"This week in Sochi, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, another Pussy Riot member, and I were detained three times and then, on Wednesday, assaulted by Cossack (pro-Russian this time) militiamen with whips and pepper spray. Mr Putin will teach you how to love the motherland."

The images of the punk rockers assaulted by whip-wielding Cossacks has gone viral on YouTube and social media, as has footage of Kiev's bloodied protesters and machine-gunning snipers. Putin and Yanukovych should know that this is what they're up against.

Sign up for our daily newsletter

Disqus - noscript

So there are Greek, Turkish and Jewish nationals in Ukraine as well! Ah well then maybe the Greek, Turk and Israeli forces had better invade Ukraine as well to 'protect their nationals' and claim the areas where they live. That's what that hack Crispin Black is saying in his joke of an article. Maybe one of the Ukrainians has a Dutch uncle or an Australian cousin, quick better get the Dutch and Australians to invade as well.
At first Putin said his troops were there to protect the Russian Nationals there. He then said his troops were there at the invitation of the former Ukrainian 'leader', now he denies that the troops are Russian at all. In that case he shouldn't have a problem if the Ukraine troops open fire and drive them out or if the U.N send in a force to arrest these criminals of unknown origin!