Black Sunday for Ukraine? Things Moving Too Fast
As a historian I’m not supposed to prognosticate — that is a game we leave to the political scientists and the economists, who usually get things wrong. Too many variables in human affairs. However, I do think that there is a strong possibility that Russia’s ambitions in Crimea *and* east Ukraine have gone farther than most of us can imagine. On this coming Sunday and/or during the following week we may well see some or all of the following.
(1) Russian “victory” in the Crimean referendum, followed by full-on Russian assaults on remaining loyal Ukrainian military units in Crimea.
(2) Attacks by gangs of pro-Russian youth (“Russian activists”) on ethnic Ukrainians, particularly those participating in “Ukrainian Unity” demonstrations, in Crimea and in places like Donetsk and Lugansk in east Ukraine. The right word here would be “pogroms”.
(3) Demands by the pro-Russian “Party of the Regions” based in east Ukraine for a Crimean-style referendum in east Ukrainian provinces. Last I checked a congress of the PoR was to be held in Donetsk tomorrow. Don’t know if this will come off or not, but if it does, expect such a demand.
(4) Entry of Russian military units into east Ukraine on the pretext of protecting local Russian populace from “Ukrainian fascists”. It is hard to say what levels of violence this will precipitate. The range could be from what we are seeing right now in Crimea up to full-scale warfare, with use of aircraft, artillery, and armor. If Ukrainian resist, they will probably do so in uncoordinated fashion, and attempt to withdraw behind the Dnepr. To the extent the Ukrainian military has any plan at all, it probably involves a withdrawal west to protect the approaches to Kiev and Lviv. I don’t think that the Russians would attempt to cross the Dnepr, and Russian units might remain much further east.
(5) In connection with all of these, large-scale bloodletting, hundreds to thousands of civilian casualties and tens of thousands of refugees fleeing in all directions. These last could become major problems for Moldovo, Romania, Poland, Belarus, and Russia itself.
We are faced by a real catastrophe. I teach my students that between 1914 and 1953 you just don’t want to be anywhere in the region bounded by the Volga to the east, the Elbe to the west, the Caucasus and Black Sea to the south, and the White Sea in the north. Let’s hope that the same does not become true of Ukraine for the early 21st century.
What evidence suggests this to me? First continuing Russian reinforcements of troops already in Crimea, along with military exercises on the Ukrainian frontiers.
Also, in Kharkov the okrug court has accepted a motion from the prosecutor’s office to ban a “referendum” on regional autonomy unilaterally declared by pro-Russian parties and set for March 16. It is hard to imagine what form such a non-governmental referendum would take place, but one is left to imagine a huge crowd in a public square raising their hands in support of “autonomy” or something of that sort. The pro-Russians are calling this a “veche”… the old-time (like, before 1400 or so) gathering of city inhabitants in the public square that would make “democratic” decisions in process involving a lot of shouting, fist-fights, and drunkenness.
Last night’s violence in Donetsk, in which at least three people died when pro-Russian activists attacked a demonstration in favor of Ukrainian unity, suggests that the Russian paramilitaries are ready to push the situation into full on civil war. It also suggests that police and security forces loyal to Ukraine do not have the power to control such violence, and certainly not if Russian military units (perhaps posing as local “self-defense forces” as in Crimea) advance into the region.
The US appears to be equivocating on military aid to Ukraine. The WSJ reported yesterday that the Pentagon had refused large-scale technical aid, but the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense today claims talks are still ongoing. The US military and NATO have to know that if conflict with Russia is imminent, any help consisting of new technology would be useless as time would be necessary for the Ukrainians to master that technology and integrate it into their forces. Items like aviation fuel, rations, and medical supplies could be useful. To me the equivocation of the US suggests real fear that a Ukraine-Russia war is imminent.
BBC just reported that talks between Kerry and his counterpart Sergei Lavrov were “not productive”.
None of this is good