Once more, fires flare in eastern Ukraine. Violent deaths are now becoming an everyday occurrence. The Geneva deal is fading. And across Europe governments call to defence against the Russian threat. Could all-out war ensue between Russian and Ukrainian troops? Or is there a way back to stability and peace in eastern Ukraine and elsewhere?
When Ukrainian tanks last week rolled into Slavyansk, only to be mobbed and stopped by civilians and (Russian?) militiamen it did not represent the finest hour for the Ukrainian army. However, in their seeming incompetence the Ukrainian armed forces did manage to hold their fire. Ukraine lost equipment, but no soldiers, or civilians, lost their lives. In its own muddled way, the "battle for Slavyansk" indicated that Russians and Ukrainians might be able to resolve the situation gradually, with threats but no deaths.
Now, blood is seeping through. Recently, pro-Russian militiamen were shot and killed in a murky firefight and now has been found the tortured body of what appears to be a pro-Ukrainian politician, from the Prime Minister's party, no less. It remains unclear precisely what happened to Volodymyr Rybak outside Slavyansk, but his fate may spur events on. (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/04/22/ukraine-politician-found-dead_n_5192477.html)
It is possible that militias killed Mr Rybak to provoke open fighting with Ukrainian troops. It is also possible, if unproven, that the militias were spurred to the act by figures in the Russian regime. For now, Russia is not commenting on this murder and, indeed, is keeping fairly quiet in what could be anticipation or confusion. Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has, once more, stressed that Russia can overcome any Western sanctions; that business and ordinary citizens should be kept free from political shenanigans. (http://rt.com/business/154012-sanctions-russia-stronger-medvedev/) UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, meanwhile, seems unsurprised that tensions will take a while to die down - and, following the recent UN report dismissing the claim of systematic threats to Russians in Ukraine, Churkin now wants UN far removed from eastern Ukraine. Apparently, the OSCE is now expected to stop any unrest that may appear, together with the Ukrainian conscience or some such. (http://voiceofrussia.com/news/2014_04_22/Prospect-of-UN-peacekeeping-operation-in-Ukraine-unreal-Russian-diplomat-9486/)
On the bright side, this is hardly belligerent talk from Medvedev and Churkin. At worst, if the Russian administration is connected to the militias currently occupying parts of eastern Ukraine - and if recent casualties on both sides have been at least partly provoked by Russian intents to keep Ukraine unstable - at least the tens of thousands of Russian troops lined up along the border with Ukraine do not seem to be on their way in. Certainly, their continued presence is ominous - unless Moscow fears a Ukrainian spearhead attack towards the Ural mountains there is no credible domestic reason why Russian tanks in these numbers need to be facing the border. Undoubtedly, Russia would consider an attack if actions by the Ukrainian state resulted (even indirectly) in civilian casualties, but so far this has mostly been avoided.
Having said this, though, developments in eastern Ukraine have left the acting government in Kiev in a difficult dilemma. One month remains before the presidential election to decide the successor to the exiled Viktor Yanukovych. Such an election seems impossible under current circumstances, with the most populous (and richest, bar Kiev) part of the country subject to unelected, masked rule. Even if the militias (or some of them) in eastern Ukraine are genuinely concerned with locals' welfare (unlikely given the readiness with which militias let unarmed civilians face down armed Ukrainian soldiers and tanks) they have not been elected by any significant part of the local population in any of the cities they occupy. Everything you need to know about the official Russian view of democracy is encapsulated in its willingness to let politics be decided through the barrel of a gun - that was the case on Crimea and it is the case in eastern Ukraine. Let us say, for the sake of the argument, that a majority of Crimeans wanted to join Russia. Let us say that most people in eastern Ukraine feel the same way. Well, why could observers from the OSCE and the UN not be admitted to Crimea before or during the referendum? Why does Churkin want to keep the UN away now? And, if regions in Ukraine can vote to join Russia (an idea for which arguments may be found), why could Chechnya not vote to secede from Russia? Should Russia even be in the North Caucasus anymore? Maybe Russia is welcome there - but Moscow will never allow a local referendum to decide the matter. Thousands have died in the North Caucasus during recent decades - many Russians among them - but apparently Dagestan is lower priority than Donetsk. Or maybe it is simply easier for Russia to deal with unrest in Ukraine, where the Kiev government can still be blamed for any trouble? Or maybe Ukraine, like the North Caucasus, remains subject to Russian "off the cuff" politics, in Tor Bukkvoll's wonderful phrase; resulting in reactive Russian responses to whatever may be happening on a given day.
It seems increasingly clear to me, anyway, that the crime of Vladimir Putin's Russia right now is less the imperial gluttony suggested by The Economist (http://www.economist.com/printedition/2014-04-19) and more a bumbling necessity to prove Russia as the great power of which Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov repeatedly reminds us. (http://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/news/world/us-releases-photos-of-russian-troops-russia-us-trade-jabs-over-troubled-ukraine-deal/story-fni0xs63-1226892038216)
Dear Mr Lavrov - your Russia still has one of the highest income inequalities in Europe, if not much of the world (http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SI.POV.GINI/); significant proportions of your male population suffers from substance abuse, losing years of their lives in the process (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jan/31/russian-men-losing-years-to-vodka); your country appears to be more corrupt than Mali, than Nicaragua, than Pakistan... (http://cpi.transparency.org/cpi2013/results/) It is all fine and well that your government wants to protect Russians living in Ukraine; please remember to protect Russians living in Russia, too!
Unfortunately, Lavrov and his colleagues may not have much time in the coming days and weeks to focus on domestic challenges. Following recent events, acting Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk and acting President Oleksandr Turchynov both directly blame Russia for the violent surge. And, in worrying tones, the militias occupying cities in eastern Ukraine are now uniformly referred to as "terrorists," to be treated as criminals, one would suspect, and not military representatives of a foreign state. I cannot but agree with Turchynov's (and the West's) call for Russia to withdraw its troops from Crimea (leaving the Black Sea Fleet, one would assume) and to unequivocally condemn any violence in eastern Ukraine. Yet Turchynov does not stop here - he is also calling for Ukrainian security forces to re-launch in the east. (http://uk.reuters.com/article/2014/04/22/uk-ukraine-crisis-idUKBREA3D0C420140422). Last time the Ukrainian offensive here ended in farce; let us hope we will not soon see farce turn into widespread tragedy.