June 11, 2015
By Rostislav Ishchenko
Translated from Russian by J.Hawk
The First Article in a Cycle
I’m having to read almost everyday panic-laden screeds on how the Russian government is “giving aid and comfort to the enemy”, on how the Ukrainian military is now unbelievably powerful, on “Russia’s treason” which consists of supporting the Kiev putschists and equanimity toward the drowning-in-blood Donbass. And the question: “Why wasn’t it possible to take out the junta before it established itself in power?”, which one constantly hears on TV shows, on the social media, even in the arguments between couch politicians.
I think I’ll have to write more than one article on this topic. If only because that, as the situation on the Donbass is escalating once again, Kiev is making aggressive statements concerning Transnistria, and the US is not even attempting to veil its threats toward Russia, the question “How much longer will we have to put up with all this?” is beginning to bother even the most reserved and level-headed experts.
Since the patriotic media discourse was initially launched by Strelkov who, being the “Novorossia resistance hero” as well as the author of the “Surkov the peacemaker” myth, let’s start with Strelkov. At the same time I have to qualify my remarks by stating that the confrontation between the “militarists” and “peacemakers” is now much more than simply a personal disagreement between a charismatic partisan and a presidential assistant. The “militarist” movement has entered into opposition to the Russian government from a radical position, Strelkov has long ceased being its icon or the sole icon (having lost much of his authority and charisma due to a highly ill-conceived PR campaign), and it’s not only Surkov who is the target of non-constructive criticism but also Putin and the entire system of Russian government.
More than half a year ago I was warning, in an article dedicated just coalescing “militarist opposition” that the “militarists” who are playing on the population’s understandable desire to win quickly, “with little bloodshed and on someone else’s territory”, who criticize the state as supposedly representing the interests of the oligarchs and who are trying to establish a persistent societal mistrust toward the president and the government, who are spreading suspicions of “treason in high places”, are far more dangerous to Russia’s stability than the liberals with whom the “militarists” are supposedly fighting.
The liberals are weak, marginalized, unpopular, don’t have a serious leader, the people are not ready to support their willingness to capitulate in the global confrontation between Russia and the US. The “militarists” are operating in a manner similar to that of their predecessors’ in 1915-1917, when Nikolay II was overthrown to the sound of similar cries about the Russian government’s inability to protect Russia’s interest, an act that led to the collapse of the dynasty, the monarchy, and Russia itself which only by 1940 managed, thanks to a happy coincidence, recover the territories that were lost due to “patriotic” activity.
How did it all start in the spring of 2014?
The Russian authorities were concentrating troops on the Ukrainian border in March and early April, which represented a force sufficiently strong to carry out an invasion. Putin receives the Federation Council permission to use the armed forces outside Russia’s borders, and the legitimate president of Ukraine Yanukovych turns to Russia with a plea to help suppress a revolt. Putin’s own statements, Russia media position, and even Yanukovych’s self-assured promise, delivered at a Rostov press conference, to return to Kiev in a short time, leave little doubt that Russia is prepared to render military assistance to the Russian Spring on a level far greater than in the Crimea.
But something happened at the end of April. The Russian government and media rhetoric changes, forces return to their permanent bases, and the conflict becomes a prolonged, attritional one. According to the militarists, the “fifth column in the Kremlin forced Putin to make concessions and try to reach an agreement with the US concerning the Donbass.”
This is a nutty scenario suitable only for scaring housewives. The Russian military was seriously involved in the Ukrainian crisis right from the beginning. To understand their position, it’s enough to remember that Russian generals are still unhappy that back in 2008 they were “not allowed to take Tbilisi.” That’s understandable. The military exists in order to win, and the best indicator of a victory is a parade in the captured enemy capital. FSB, SVR, MFA positions may be somewhat more sophisticated than those of the military, but no less patriotic.
This is a nutty version which is suitable only to scare housewives. The Russian military was involved in the Ukrainian crisis right from the start. In order to understand their position, it’s enough to remember that to this day Russian generals complain they were not allowed to capture Tbilisi in 2008. That’s understandable–the military exists to win, and the best confirmation of victory is a parade in the captured enemy capital. The FSB, SVR, MFA positions may be more nuanced but no less patriotic. The financial-economic wing of the government may have insisted on delaying the active phase of the operation, arguing that the Russian economy had to be prepared against possible sanctions, but its position would have been influential only if sanctions were inevitable.
However, real sanctions were introduced only after the Malaysian Boeing was shot down over the Donbass. Therefore the risk may have seemed justifiable in early Spring. But what did the “militarists” do at that time. Assessing the situation as the prelude to a Russian invasion of Ukraine, they repeat the provocation by the Polish London government in exile by whose directive the Warsaw Uprising was launched on August 1, 1944. The “militarists” (and they write about it themselves) were hoping that Russia would send in troops at the end of April or beginning of May. At that time on the Donbass, in Odessa, Kharkov, Zaporozhye, Dnepropetrovsk, Kherson, Nikolayev, Russian Spring resistance was developing with various degrees of intensity and success. The Ukrainian military was hesitating, MVD were in the wait-and-see mode, even the most Americanized SBU did not enjoy Kiev’s trust. And then suddenly there appears in Slavyansk some unit led by some Strelkov (who called himself an FSB colonel, although Wikipedia tells us he retired as a warrant officer, which corresponds to his age, education, and length of service). On April 13 that unit engages in a firefight at a checkpoint which costs the lives of SBU officers. On April 16th they attack a column of the 25th Airmobile Brigade. There are no casualties, but the paratroopers give up their vehicles and personal weapons, some even join the militia.
It was precisely on April 13 that Kiev announced the launch of the ATO with military participation, which leads to the first skirmishes which cost the lives of Ukrainian military and special services personnel, deaths which must be avenged. Kiev uses the 25th Brigade, which was almost disbanded and put on trial, as an example to show the negative consequences of trying to talk it out with the militia. Incidentally, the reformed 25th Brigade, additionally reinforced by Dnepropetrovsk Nazis, has become one of the most battleworthy Ukrainian formations.
The “militarists” did not want much. They wanted to have a piece of “liberated territory” by the time of Russian military invasion in order to become part of the new government. They don’t even hide that they dreamed of creating in Novorossia a state the likes of which they wanted to see in Russia. Closely following the Warsaw Uprising example, which also started so that the Red Army would be met by a new “government” in its “independently liberated” capital.
Now let’s put ourselves in the Kremlin’s position. In a situation of a stark confrontation with Washington (and not only concerning Ukraine), when it must make a perfectly balanced and thought-through decision on which the fate of Russia depends, there suddenly appears a factor of uncertainty on the Donbass in the form of a group of “militarists” who began their own private war and who are planning to build their “alternative Russia in Novorossia.” And they wait for Putin to send in troops, not so much to support the Russian Spring but to satisfy their own political ambitions.
I am not exaggerating. Strelkov said in an interview a few months after leaving the Donbass that he started the war and expected that Putin would support him. In general, no matter what your rank is, starting a war in the name of a superpower and placing demands before its commander-in-chief is an offense punishable by a firing squad on the spot. Strelkov, by his own admission, had people killed for less than that in Slavyansk.
Therefore the “militarists” had introduced an element of uncertainty which may have disrupted the Kremlin’s plans. There may have been other reasons, maybe even a whole range of them, including Europe’s unreadiness to properly perceive Russia’s military actions in Ukraine. But the “militarist” factor also has to be taken into account. No responsible leader can make a decision which might have global consequences when a critical point is controlled by incomprehensible upstarts who may be as much idealists as they are provocateurs.
So the “militarists” who are now complaining about the fate of the Donbass should also remember that in the Spring of 2014 they were trying to use that very same population as raw material in the interests of their own internal Russian political positioning. And they partly succeeded, otherwise we would not be discussing the “militarist” problem today. As I wrote above, this is all in the past, but we are forced to return to it in order to properly assess a few pseudo-patriotic myths. The full analysis of the “militarist position” in the Donbass war would require more than one or two articles.
To be continued…
J.Hawk’s Comment: I fully agree with the assessment of Strelkov’s motives and aims, but at the same time I doubt Russia was about to invade Ukraine in April or May 2014 regardless of what Strelkov was doing. Ishchenko is wrong to state that there was little risk of sanctions or other Western actions in the event of a Russian invasion of Ukraine–rather to the contrary, you’d have a very major international crisis on its hands, and it’s debatable even countries like China or India would support it on that issue.
Instead, I am of the opinion that the Russian grouping of forces on the Ukrainian border had the task of dissuading the Ukrainian military from attempting to recapture Crimea, which at that time was still held only by fairly light Russian forces. Go back and read what everyone in Russia was writing about back then–they were writing about the Ukrainian military attacking Crimea. The Russian concentration on Ukraine’s eastern border was effective–everyone in Ukraine and the West thought Russia was about to invade, which is why the Ukrainian military started to move eastward, to protect the country’s borders with Russia. Strelkov and others felt their moment was slipping from them, and acted…
But at the same time Strelkov was not acting wholly on his own, and against the will of the Kremlin. No, the “militarists” are useful to the Kremlin just as the “liberals” are–at different times, for different purposes, but useful nevertheless. They may underestimate their importance at times, but if they do, they will soon be brought down to earth.