Thursday, February 27, 2014

The Ukraine Crisis: Russian manoeuvres, Crimean games, and the Kiev conundrum

In my last article about the ongoing "Ukraine Crisis", I talked about the "Russian Gambit":

"What are Russia's intentions? While accepting a de facto split of Ukraine on the ground (at least in the short term), accepting it de jure would be another matter, and we know that Russia follows the line that the opposition now in power in Kiev is engineered by fascists that have come to power through a violent coup. On Saturday, having fled Kiev, Yanukovich may well have asked for Russian protection for a Russian-speaking eastern and southern rump state. But the Kremlin may have explained their own motivation, based on their analysis of the opposition: to allow the opposition a taste of power in Kiev (while having no control of the east), playing a waiting game for the disparate opposition to violently turn on each other, allowing Yanukovich and his party to return to power in Kiev soon afterwards, with Russian help or not, depending on the situation."

Seen from this perspective, the events of the past twenty-four hours in particular make some sense. On Wednesday, Putin declared a sudden "mobilisation" of forces in the west and centre of Russia, with full "exercises" to begin on Friday, and for several days. This also led to naval forces being stepped up in readiness.
With convenient timing, this was followed overnight by the seizure in Simferopol (Crimea's capital) of two key government buildings (the parliament and government house) by a large group pro-Russia militia. Surrealism had become the norm on Thursday in the Crimean capital, as the gunmen were cheered on by supporters outside, while the local police that had briefly surrounded the building, disappeared.
While this was going on, local MPs were being allowed into the building, albeit without the use of their phones; official parliamentary business was thus being guided by the wishes of several dozen armed men.

Who the men are is unclear; Russian special forces "incognito"? If not directly or indirectly guided by Moscow, they could instead be members of the "Berkut" forces, disbanded by the new Kiev government for their brutality against anti-government protesters, but welcomed in Crimea, out to make a name for themselves and push events along.
By the evening, the (still occupied) Crimean parliament had agreed to hold a referendum on Crimea's future status and election for the same day as presidential elections declared by the Kiev government. What is clear is that Crimea represents a "low-hanging fruit" for Moscow; easy to pick away from the loose grasp of a distant and impotent Kiev government.

As mentioned in my "Russian gambit", it looks as though Putin took one look at the makeup of personalities in Kiev and has decided to bide his time; they appear divided and out of their depth. While the Kiev government has declared  presidential elections three months from now, this is a suitable length of time (neither too short nor too long) for the former opposition in Kiev to screw things up, as Putin guesses they will. Meanwhile, Yanukovich's "Party Of The Regions" has declared his successor as their candidate for the May elections.

By June, Crimea could easily be part of Russia in all but name, with Yanukovich's successor in power in Kiev, all without a shot being fired. Exactly as Putin would prefer.

The Kiev conundrum

Events in Kiev in the past few days have hardly given much confidence that those in power in Kiev have a strong idea of what they are doing, or with a clear understanding of the task facing them.

The interim government announced today the new line-up of the cabinet: many of them are politicians from Yuliya Tymushenko's "Fatherland" party (some of them with a corrupt reputation of their own); the others are non-political figures such as journalists and actors, as well as a few posts for the right-wing "Svoboda" (Freedom) party.

This line-up of figures has the appearance of a coalition of corrupt party hacks in collusion with unpleasant nationalists and inexperienced (and naive?) non-partisan figures. In short, it looks like a mess. When the cabinet was announced for approval (like in a Roman forum) to the "Euromaidan", many of them received heckles. Worse, the interim government's finance minister then explained that they would have to make many unpopular economic decisions: this is code for "austerity", given that the government has inherited a massive debt that the EU and the IMF are keen to restructure by taking the economy to pieces.

Even ignoring the inevitable unpopularity that "austerity" would bring to the protesters that had supposedly supported the "revolution", most of Ukraine's productivity is the east, the natural homeland of Yanukovich's supporters. There is next to no chance that the reforms that the EU and the IMF are talking about would ever get through without getting the approval of "the east", which is never going to happen.

Apart from the "cloud cuckoo land" ideas of the interim government, what's more baffling is the stance of EU. It's clear to any objective observer that the Ukraine "revolution" that had been brewing for a few months now was supported on the ground by the foot-soldiers of "Svoboda" and "Pravy Sektor" (Right Sector); the latter are a fascist mob that consider "Svoboda" a group of soft moderates. Since the "revolution" over the weekend, the fascist mob have been acting as the street security throughout most of Kiev, as well as in their real stronghold in the west, Lvov. There is little evidence that the mob have put away their weapons yet, or have any serious intention of doing so.

What on earth are the EU doing so conspicuously supporting a government of uncertain designs and unstable character, that was brought to power with the help of a fascist militia? It looks for all the world that the EU has seriously lost the plot.

Anything that makes the West look incompetent makes Putin look ever smarter; the "chess grand master" whose moves are unplayable against.

Ukraine in early 2014 now resembles some of the weak and unstable governments that were established in Europe in the aftermath of the First World War, and in the run-up to the Second World War. A more contemporary comparison would be to the weak post-Soviet governments that existed in the first years after the fall of Communism.
In each of these comparisons, the result was messy, often resulting in extreme governments and conflict. In a previous article, I compared the Ukraine crisis to the so-called "July Crisis" that led to the First World War. While we're not at that stage yet (and may never be, if the "Russian Gambit" holds true), the end game is still mired in uncertainty.

It has been announced that Yanukovich is to give a press conference on Friday afternoon in Rostov-on-Don. For what possible purpose? As Moscow has declared that they are willing to support his person, this may be yet another manoeuvre  in the great "chess game" of Ukraine...

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