Originally published April 12, 2014
The Atmosphere in Washington
On Saturday, April 12, The New York Times did not have a story (or even a reference) on its front page on the Ukraine.
The Wall Street Journal, however, in a superb article by Adam Entous and Julian E. Barnes, published a penetrating account of the extent to which top U.S. civilian and military leaders are in the grip of President Obama’s pacifism and approach of appeasement.
See Adam Entous and Julian E. Barnes, “U.S. Tries to Help Ukraine, Reassure Allies Without Riling Russia; Obama Administration, NATO Face Quandary as They Plan Response to Moscow’s Annexation of Crimea, April 12, 2014.
Entous and Barnes offer a few illustrative examples:
(1) Seeking to demonstrate strong American support for Ukraine, U.S. military planners considered using Air Force planes to ferry food rations to outnumbered and underequipped Ukrainian troops facing superior Russian forces across the border.
Pentagon leaders settled instead for a less-conspicuous operation: They sent the promised meals-ready-to-eat, or MREs, in commercial trucks from storehouses in Germany.
(2) “Ukrainian forces got the MREs late last month, about two weeks after requesting aid. The White House says it is still reviewing other items on Kiev’s wish-list, including medical kits, uniforms, boots and military socks.
“‘You want to calibrate your chest-thumps,” a senior military official said of the step-by-step American response to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s military moves. “He does something else in Ukraine, we release the socks.'”
Yatsenyuk’s Offer on of Sweeping Concessions, and Escalating Unrest in the East
Meanwhile, in Donetsk on Friday, Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, in a move signaling a cave-in to Russian pressures and military threats–as few signs suggested that the West would support the Ukraine in defending its territory against a second Russian invasion–offered concessions so broad that they would undermine the unity and sovereignty of the Ukrainian state, if they were ever accepted and implemented.
Protesters, however, seem to be following a different script, dictated by Moscow. An escalating wave of seizures of government buildings by armed protesters continued on Saturday, promising to make the holding of Ukrainian national elections on May 25 all but untenable in the eastern parts of the country where the protests are centered.
The Guardian has provided an overview of the latest developments in the Ukraine, including the concessions offered by Yatsenyuk in Donetsk on Friday:
Protesters in Donetsk have called on Russia to deploy peacekeepers to facilitate a referendum on independence by 11 May.
Yatsenyuk did not agree to a referendum but suggested the system of regional administrations appointed by the president should be replaced by executive committees elected by regional parliaments, which would have “all financial, economic, administrative and other powers to control the corresponding region”.
He also recommended that the parliament approve legislation that would change the constitution to allow for local referendums, a move strongly supported by the leaders of the Donetsk occupation.
Yatsenyuk said changes to the country’s constitution should be approved before a presidential election planned for 25 May that the Kiev regime has said will fully legitimise the new government.
–Alec Luhn in Donetsk, Oksana Grytsenko in Luhansk and agencies, “Ukraine fails to break stalemate with pro-Russian protesters in east; Arseniy Yatsenyuk promises devolution to local government in hope of staving off demands for their independence from Kiev,” The Guardian, Friday 11 April 2014 (15.03 EDT).
The tactics being used are from the Crimea playbook, with reported escalations today (Saturday, April 12) involving military units not wearing military insignia.
See Gregory L. White and Lukas I. Alpert, “Pro-Russian Protests Spread in Eastern Ukraine; Armed Men in Military-Style Uniforms Move to Commandeer Government Offices, Wall Street Journal, April 12, 2014 (updated 7:23 p.m. ET) .
White and Alpert report:
Witnesses said the men who took over the buildings in Slavyansk weren’t the local activists who had led protests in the region in recent weeks.
Instead, they appeared better-equipped and trained, carrying military-style gear and weapons, but with no insignia on their camouflage uniforms.
Such descriptions were similar to the thousands of troops who moved into and took over Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula last month, leading quickly to Russia’s annexation. Those troops were later confirmed to be Russian, though Moscow never officially admitted that.
“Kämpfe in mehreren Städten der Ostukraine; Im Osten der Ukraine bekämpfen sich prorussische Aktivisten und Sicherheitskräfte. Präsident Alexander Turtschinow berief für den Abend den nationalen Sicherheitsrat ein,”Die Zeit, .”12. April 2014 (19:20 Uhr).
The growing protests and incipient violence appear to be setting the stage for Russian military intervention, by the 40,000-80,000 troops that have been mobilized in preparation for such action.
The Diplomatic Front
On the diplomatic front, Russia is playing the same delaying game it played in Syria, talking of diplomatic solutions and illusory “agreements”, while gaining time for other kinds of solutions produced by the use of military force on the ground.
The strategy has been successful in Syria, and it should come as no surprise that the Russians are following a similar script in their diplomacy vis-à-vis the Ukraine.
The near-constant diplomatic contacts between Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Secretary of State John Kerry, and others, serve two important Russian purposes.
First, they allow the Kremlin to monitor with great precision the intentions and potential actions of the at times compulsively transparent Obama administration, and its Western allies.
Second, they offer excellent opportunities to divide the Western countries by planting false seeds of hope. For example, Lavrov offered earnest reassurances to Kerry that Russia had no intention of violating the territorial integrity of the Ukraine, only days before the Russian invasion of that country. Similarly, Russian President Vladimir Putin assured German Chancellor Angela Merkel that Russian troops on the border with Ukraine would be withdrawn (or significantly reduced). No such drawdown has occurred, and indeed the build-up has continued.
A similar hope, in all likelihood also illusory, has been offered that if the West does not anger Russian President Vladimir Putin by its responses to Russia’s actions, he will not invade the eastern Ukraine.
Under current circumstances, it is a very bad idea for the U.S. and the EU to meet with Russia on April 17 to discuss the Ukraine’s fate, even with the Ukraine also participating.
See The Trenchant Observer, “Munich II: The meeting in Geneva between the U.S., the EU, the Ukraine and Russia, April 11, 2014.
The meeting, to find a “diplomatic solution” to “the “Ukrainian Crisis” provides Russia with an excellent opportunity to continue its strategy of deception and delay, dividing the West and offering illusory hopes to defuse the momentum for the adoption of any serious responses.
John Kerry, Sergey Lavrov, Catherine Ashton of the EU, and the Ukraine will meet in a context in which only Russia can gain, either by securing “Munich II”-style concessions from the West at the expense of the Ukraine, or by sowing division and doubt among the countries of the West.
Yatsenyuk’s proffered concessions on April 11 suggest that “Munich II”-style concessions are already being crafted, probably under pressure from the U.S. and the EU.
The Costs of Further Delay in Imposing Really Significant Sanctions
Further delay by the West in taking military steps and adopting really meaningful “third-stage” sanctions (such as a ban on financial transactions with Russia and/or a freezing of Russian assets in the West) will enable Russia to proceed with its destabilization of the eastern Ukraine and what may be its plan to have local “referendums” held on May 9, Russia’s Victory Day (celebrating the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany in World War II). Demands for such referendums are now being heard from pro-Russian protesters.
The Russians are following Adolf Hitler’s playbook for the Anschluss with Austria and the annexation of the Sudetenland to the letter. The first took place on March 12, 1938. The second took place six months later, with the approval of France and Great Britain at Munich on September 30, 1938.
“Is Putin like Hitler?” The Trenchant Observer, April 4, 2014.
“Putin’s seizure of the Crimea and Hitler’s seizure of the Sudetenland: The comparison is accurate,” April 1, 2014.
Because of the complexity and time-consuming nature of EU and NATO decision processes (unanimity is required, in both cases), only the U.S. is in a position to lead and to act quickly.
The additional sanctions announced by Obama on April 11, 2014 (adding seven individuals and a major Crimean gas company seized by the Russians to those on the list of targeted sanctions) represent small steps in the right direction. But no one should imagine for an instant that they are sufficiently serious to affect Russia’s decisions, including any which may have already been made to invade the Ukraine for a second time.
The United States and the West are speaking the language of peace and reason. Russia is speaking the language of war and military action on the ground.
If only Obama and his “groupthink” coterie could come to their senses, grasp these realities, and react with forceful actions that are executed, not threatened, much might still be salvaged from the current debacle. After the invasion and annexation of the Crimea one would think they might have learned a thing or two.
But the roots of pacifism grow deep, and it is not easy for those who are committed to appeasement to discern–much less react to–realities which are dramatically changing, hour by hour, on the ground.
The Trenchant Observer
Der Scharfsinniger Beobachter
El Observador Incisivo