Recent events in eastern Ukraine
Since last weekend, som government building in the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk have been occupied by groups demanding referendums on secession from Ukraine and incorporation in Russia. This weekend, events there have been somewhat static, although the regional police station in Donetsk has been taken over by militias. (http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-04-13/ukraine-tension-mounts-as-police-face-gunfire-in-east.html) Donetsk and Luhansk are the 5th and 11th largest cities in Ukraine, with populations of over a million and half a million, respectively, so their fate is crucial for what happens to Ukraine as a whole. Yet, for now, the standoff between the acting Ukrainian government and pro-Russian state protesters continues here.
Events have been much more dynamic lately in the smaller cities of Kramatorsk (population: 181,000) and Slaviansk (population: 125,000). The size of these cities make them less central for eastern Ukraine, yet they are cities within 10 kilometres from each other, making it easier for the militias to coordinate their actions, and they straddle the major highway running from the border with Russia near Rostov-on-Don via Donetsk and Luhansk in the far south-east of Ukraine to Kharkiv further north-west. So Kramatorsk and Slaviansk are useuful places to control for anyone seeking to move military equipment through the heartland of eastern Ukraine. (https://maps.google.co.uk/maps?q=slavyansk&hl=en&ll=48.857487,37.606201&spn=5.118148,13.392334&sll=51.48931,-0.08819&sspn=0.605411,1.674042&hnear=Slov'yans'k,+Donetsk+Oblast,+Ukraine&t=m&z=7)
In Kramatorsk and Slaviansk militias have taken over local police stations, and they have stolen allegedly hundreds of weapons belonging to the security forces of Ukraine. Roadblocks have been placed around Slaviansk, where it seems a potential battle between local militias and the security forces of Ukraine would be most likely to appear. Civilian protesters in their hundreds have gathered to protect the militias' hold on the government buildings in Slaviansk. (see stills and listen to brief audio here: http://uk.reuters.com/video/2014/04/12/armed-men-take-over-police-station-in-uk?videoId=308172540&videoChannel=117759)
As was the case on Crimea, and has been the case so far in eastern Ukraine, it is clear that the majority of local residents in Kramatorsk and Slaviansk (let alone Donetsk and Luhansk) do not actively support the pro-Russian state militias. The degree of any tacit support is, of course, difficult to measure, but what protests we have previously witnessed in eastern Ukraine have generally shown a clear majority in favour of remaining part of Ukraine. Some miners have now come out to protest "for Donbass" in Donetsk, but their protests seem very much directed in favour of their region's autonomy and not for unification with Russia. (In the picture in the link attached here from a recent Donetsk protest notice the almost complete absence of Russian flags - as well as the Soviet flag in front: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/apr/12/east-ukraine-protesters-miners-donetsk-russia). Mining in Ukraine remains a dangerous, low-paid profession - seven miners died just days ago near Donetsk (http://www.kyivpost.com/content/ukraine/seven-people-died-in-donetsk-coal-mine-accident-343019.html) - and it is perhaps to be expected that miners in this region wish to ensure more funds for them, their profession and area in a future Ukraine. This, however, is not the same as wishing to join Russia, where miners' conditions are poor, too.
The Russian regime has kept noticeably quiet over the last few days. Previously, President Vladimir Putin has mentioned how Russia would use "political, diplomatic and legal means" to defend Russian-speakers abroad. (http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/transcript-putin-says-russia-will-protect-the-rights-of-russians-abroad/2014/03/18/432a1e60-ae99-11e3-a49e-76adc9210f19_story.html) Apparently, such "non-military" means included the armed occupation and annexation of Crimea with the assistance of local militias. So the fact that Russia is again calling for calm and non-violent measures is perhaps not to be taken at face value; not least since a build-up of tens of thousands of Russian troops and military equipment remains along the border with Ukraine. (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/apr/10/satellite-images-russian-military-ukraine-border)
The militias now occupying Kramatorsk, Slaviansk and elsewhere in eastern Ukraine are very similar to those that occupied Crimea; and they are almost certainly again controlled from Moscow (although it should not necessarily be assumed that they would follow all of Putin's orders, especially if they were ordered to withdraw). Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is using their presence to state that Ukraine is "demonstrating its inability to take responsibility for the fate of the country," and Lavrov warns that Ukrainian use of force against Russian-speakers "could undermine the potential for co-operation...including the holding of planned 4-party talks in Geneva" on April 17 between Russia, Ukraine, the USA, and the EU. (http://voiceofrussia.com/news/2014_04_13/Kerry-calls-Lavrov-to-come-up-with-solution-of-de-escalation-of-Ukraines-crisis-3723/) The planned Geneva talks are possibly key here - not only to understand Lavrov's statement, but to understand the militias' presence in eastern Ukraine. As has been suggested by Serhyi Leshchenko from Ukrainskaya Pravda, Russian wishes for federalisation and effectively fragmentation of a future Ukraine are much more likely to be heeded by the West if Russia on Thursday can appear in Geneva with de facto control of eastern Ukraine. (http://uk.reuters.com/article/2014/04/12/uk-ukraine-crisis-idUKBREA3709O20140412) For similar reasons, Russian parliamentarians, such as Duma Speaker Sergey Naryshkin, are calling for peace and accusing the West of fomenting "Russophobia [and] anti-Russian campaigns." (http://voiceofrussia.com/news/2014_04_12/Naryshkin-calls-for-Russia-France-partnership-to-continue-5472/)
And as for those sanctions, so vaunted by the West - they may well be hurting those placed under sanctions, but for now complaints are not forthcoming from the Russian elites. Gennady Timchenko, prominent energy trader and seemingly close to the Russian regime, now talks of how being sanctioned by the USA is an honour for him. Timchenko says that Russian elites, knowing such sanctions could come, withdrew many funds to Russia - and that Russia itself, given increasing European hostility - will start selling more natural gas to China. (http://uk.reuters.com/article/2014/04/12/uk-ukraine-crisis-timchenko-idUKBREA3B05X20140412) The latter statement, in particular, is dubious given the horror with which Russian elites have for decades viewed control by an increasingly powerful China (and if Russia started to export most of its energy to China it would be wholly beholden to a Beijing leadership that can be very commercially aggressive). Similarly, Timchenko did make sure to officially divest himself of shares in the oil trader Gunvor immediately after he was sanctioned (http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/72ac6954-b06a-11e3-8efc-00144feab7de.html#axzz2yl7STzfI) so the Western actions had some effect. Just as Russian state giant Gazprom's entry on the Crimean energy market has been complicated by US sanctioning of the Chernomorneftegaz company, in a clear warning to Gazprom not to get involved here (since Gazprom cooperating with or taking over a sanctioned company would be subject itself to US sanctions) (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/ukrainerussia-crisis-us-sanctions-crimean-separatists-and-chernomorneftegaz-gas-firm-9256282.html). Nevertheless, sanctions are not showing quick results in amending Russian policy.
From Ukraine, it is just now being reported that fighting with casualties has taken place in Slaviansk. Ukrainian acting Interior Minister Arsen Avakov has stated that one Ukrainian security officer has died, as have, possibly, a number of fighters on the separatist side. It is unclear whether there are civilian casualties. (http://uk.reuters.com/article/2014/04/13/uk-ukraine-crisis-casualties-idUKBREA3C06P20140413)
It seems clear that the acting Ukrainian government is not ready to let eastern Ukraine go without a fight, as was (almost) the case on Crimea. Avakov has openly accused Russia of fomenting the armed separatism in eastern Ukraine and (unlike the Russian regime and the pro-Russian state militias) Avakov has openly called for civilians to leave the centre of Slaviansk to avoid being caught in fighting. Avakov is talking about Ukraine fighting against "terrorists" and while he keeps saying that the Ukrainian regime is open to dialogue it appears as if the decision has been taken to remove militias by force. (http://uk.reuters.com/article/2014/04/12/uk-ukraine-crisis-response-idUKBREA3B0F320140412 ; http://uk.reuters.com/article/2014/04/13/uk-ukraine-crisis-slaviansk-avakov-idUKBREA3C04E20140413). Currently, on his Facebook page, Avakov is decrying (unofficially and emotionally by his own description) provocations taking place across the largest cities of eastern Ukraine. (https://www.facebook.com/arsen.avakov.1?fref=ts)
Acting Ukrainian Foreign Minister Andriy Deshchytsia has been echoing Avakov's accusations against Russia, while Energy Minister Yuriy Prodan warns that Russia is close to turning off gas deliveries to (and through) Ukraine - a fear that has been stated by Ukraine for weeks now and that is shared by many in the West. (http://uk.reuters.com/article/2014/04/12/uk-ukraine-crisis-idUKBREA3709O20140412)
And speaking of the West, plans for going forward seem very limited. US Vice President Joe Biden has announced his arrival in Kyiv to show support for the acting Ukrainian regime. A useful gesture - apart from the fact that it will take place in 9 days' time... So, Biden might arrive in Kyiv just in time to tell the Ukrainian government that he completely shares their misgivings about Russia now controlling all of eastern Ukraine. And that the Geneva talks (which by then will have taken place almost a week before) were really unfair! (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/ukraine/10763284/Ukraine-Joe-Biden-to-visit-Kiev-as-conflict-escalates.html)
Apart from Biden riding to the rescue on his snail, US Secretary of State John Kerry has threatened Russia with "additional consequences" if Russia does not immediately take steps to de-escalate the situation in eastern Ukraine! (http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/pro-russian-gunmen-take-over-eastern-ukrainian-citys-police-headquarters/2014/04/12/b3cfceed-c9a4-4599-938b-8c033bdb0405_story.html). The EU seems to say little, at all - allowing Marine Le Pen and other nationalist extremists talking for "Europe" about how Russia is really the victim of EU "Cold War thinking." (http://rt.com/news/marine-pen-russia-ukraine-128/)
OK, I expect little else from Ms Le Pen, or from her fellow souls Heinz-Christian Strache and Geert Wilders, who all seem to see the devious hand of the EU behind the world's troubles. And, indeed, Kerry, Biden, Catherine Ashton et al might have offered much stronger warnings to the Russian regime behind closed doors than what we know of.
With this in mind, though, I am still thinking - has the West simply run out of plans?
Kerry, Biden, Ashton etc. have all clearly, correctly and repeatedly condemned Russian aggression against Ukraine - in Crimea and in eastern Ukraine. Significant financial aid is forthcoming to Ukraine - unanimously supported by the West (and by China) to ensure a viable Ukrainian state. And yet, with military options ruled out, and sanctions taking a while to function, the West is taking one Hell of a gamble here. Ukrainian troops are right now fighting with pro-Russian state militias in eastern Ukraine. If those remain the only combatants the fighting will finish soon - the Ukrainian forces are much superior.
But if the Russian military decides to cross the border - then the two largest states in Europe are at war. And that could get really bloody.
Looking further ahead, Russia, as many have pointed out, will (probably) not touch NATO countries, as this would almost certainly provoke armed response from NATO (and, excluding nuclear weapons, that is a fight Russia would lose).
OK - well, these are European countries that border Russia yet are not protected by NATO:
- Moldova (through Ukraine)
- Sweden is pretty close, too