The “Ukraine Freedom Support Act”, authorizing both lethal and non-lethal aid to Kiev in its ongoing conflict with pro-Russian separatists, passed both houses of Congress late last week to little fanfare:
The current legislation authorizes $350 million worth of weapons, defense equipment and training for Ukraine over three years. Lawmakers dropped a key provision in the original bill that would have taken the rare step of giving major non-NATO ally status to Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova. Senate aides said the provision was removed at the 11th hour in order to ensure final passage.
The measure hits Russia’s defense and energy sectors, punishing companies like state defense import-export company Rosoboronexport. It requires Obama to impose conditional sanctions on the defense sector should Russian state-controlled firms sell or transfer military equipment to Syria, or to entities in Ukraine, Georgia or Moldova without the consent of the governments in those nations. The rule is aimed at helping stem the flow of weapons from Russia across the border into eastern Ukraine, where Washington and Kiev accuse Moscow of fomenting separatist unrest.
The bill does not require Obama to provide lethal aid, however, and the White House has no plans to do so – at least, not yet. Russia, predictably, lashed out in response to the bill, which it called “openly confrontational” and akin to blackmail. Emma Ashford calls it counterproductive:
On Saturday, Ukrainian President Poroshenko ordered his government to withdraw all state services, including funding for hospitals and schools, from rebel-held provinces in the country’s east:
Poroshenko told his cabinet to take steps within a week “to terminate the activities of state enterprises, institutions and organisations in the various territories where anti-terrorist operations are being conducted,” a statement on his website said. “This is a decisive step, the games have stopped,” the security official added. “All the structures that the state finances will be withdrawn from there. Ukraine will no longer finance them.” The decree also proposed that Ukraine’s central bank take steps over the next month to withdraw all banking services for businesses and individuals in the regions.
But “if anyone thought this was an abdication and a letting go of the unruly region,” Jamie Dettmer underlines, “they need to think again”:
In the decree, he asked the country’s new parliament to revoke a law granting self-rule to the Donetsk and Luhansk regions—in effect rescinding September’s “special status” law granted under a ceasefire allowing the two mainly Russian speaking eastern region some autonomy.
Last week, Ukraine’s military claimed that Russian tanks, artillery, and soldiers were pouring across the border between the two countries yet again. Today, NATO and the OSCE confirmed that they had seen the same thing:
Speaking in Sofia on November 12, the alliance’s top commander, U.S. General Philip Breedlove, said the columns included Russian tanks, artillery, air-defense systems, and combat troops. “We do not have a good picture at this time of how many. We agree that there are multiple columns that we have seen,” Breedlove said. Breedlove made the comments after a report from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said its monitors had seen a convoy of unmarked military trucks — some towing howitzer artillery pieces and multilaunch rocket systems — travelling into the rebel stronghold of Donetsk on November 11.
Shane Harris passes along an assessment from another analyst, who believes “there are as many as 7,000 Russian troops inside Ukraine now, and between 40,000 and 50,000 amassing on the country’s eastern border”:
Ukraine’s military claims that a column of “32 tanks, 16 howitzer artillery systems and trucks carrying ammunition and fighters” crossed into the country from Russia yesterday:
“The deployment continues of military equipment and Russian mercenaries to the frontlines,” spokesman Andriy Lysenko said in a televised briefing referring to Thursday’s cross-border incursion.
Nato said it has seen an increase in Russian troops and equipment along the Ukraine border was looking into the reports. “We are aware of the reports of Russian troops and tanks crossing the border between Ukraine and Russia,” a Nato military officer told Reuters. “If this crossing into Ukraine is confirmed it would be further evidence of Russia’s aggression and direct involvement in destabilising Ukraine.” The report of a new Russian movement of armour across the border follows a charge on Thursday by pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine that Kiev government forces had launched a new offensive – which Kiev immediately denied.
Morrissey calls this a move “directly out of the Crimea playbook”:
Close on the heels of a parliamentary election that handed a decisive victory to pro-Europe parties, separatist rebels held elections of their own this weekend in the “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk:
Election organizers declared that rebel leaders Alexander Zakharchenko and Igor Plotnitsky won sizable majorities in Donetsk and Luhansk respectively, reports Radio Free Europe. Both men have led rebel groups in the fight against the Ukrainian government in Kiev. But the elections have been controversial from the start, with Kiev and Western powers calling them a violation of a peace agreement drawn up in Minsk, Belarus, in early September. Under the Minsk agreement, Kiev would enact legislation that would grant Donetsk and Luhansk considerable autonomy, but under the auspices of Ukrainian law. Sunday’s elections do not comply with Ukrainian law, Kiev argues, and are therefore illegal.
Russia, predictably, endorsed the elections as legitimate today. Bershidsky notes just what a farce they were:
Fred Weir sums up the preliminary results of yesterday’s parliamentary election in Ukraine, where “the respective parties of President Petro Poroshenko and his ambitious prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, were the big winners, taking roughly 21 percent each”:
The results were a modest setback for Mr. Poroshenko, whose bloc held a commanding lead ahead of polling. He lauded the vote, noting that three-quarters of Ukrainians had endorsed Ukraine’s shift away from the Russian orbit and into Europe‘s. Preliminary results suggest that six parties cleared the 5 percent threshold to take up seats in Ukraine’s unicameral parliament. The liberal Self-Help party, based in western Ukraine and solidly pro-European, took around 11 percent. The ultra-nationalist bloc of Oleh Lyashko came in with just over 7 percent, and the party of fiery populist Yulia Tymoshenko got around 6 percent. One result that polls failed to predict was the surprising success of the east Ukraine-based Opposition Bloc, which pledged to defend the interests of east Ukrainians against Kiev‘s dictates. It received almost 10 percent of votes cast.
While this result represents a victory for pro-Western parties overall, as Weir mentions, it wasn’t the slam-dunk Poroshenko had hoped for, and it will require him to form a coalition with smaller parties and share power with Yatsenyuk, who is as much a rival to the president as he is a partner. For this and other reasons, Bershidsky cautions against getting too excited:
Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko is looking forward to a handy victory in Sunday’s elections, despite security concerns and the fact that most residents of separatist-held areas in the east will not be voting:
Poroshenko is seeking a mandate to press ahead with a plan for ending the conflict with separatists in Ukraine’s Russian-speaking eastern regions and establishing an understanding with Moscow while pursuing a course of European integration. Interfax news agency quoted him as saying on Thursday that he expected to be able to begin forming a new coalition by early next week that would be “pro-European, anti-corruption, without liars and populists.”
Stephen Sestanovich also predicts that mainstream, pro-Europe parties allied with Poroshenko will take a plurality or even a majority of seats, while the Communists and right-wing nationalist parties will be marginalized:
Recent polls show President Petro Poroshenko’s bloc likely to get 30% or so of the vote for party lists. (Half of the new Rada, or parliament, will be elected proportionally; the rest will be chosen in single-member districts.) Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk’s People’s Front may get around 11%, and it’s possible that together he and President Poroshenko will command a majority of seats.
On both the left and right, parties hoping to collect protest votes are being disappointed.
While the latest violence has largely been limited to the exchange of small-arms fire—a shift from this summer’s large-scale military offensives, which drove up death tolls and ultimately forced the warring sides to negotiate—there’s been little letup in fighting over the past month.
With a battle raging between Ukrainian and rebel forces over the Donetsk airport, the ceasefire appears to be going off the rails entirely, threatening to take the upcoming parliamentary elections with it:
Michael Weiss’s overview of the situation in Ukraine today touches on several salient topics—corruption, nationalism, the economy, Russia—and is worth a full read. Here, he addresses the law the Ukrainian parliament passed this week granting a measure of autonomy to the country’s eastern regions:
There are already signs that Ukraine and Russia will interpret it differently. The Russian Foreign Ministry, for instance, said in a statement that the law grants the “development in certain regional districts of cross-border cooperation designed to deepen good-neighborly relations with the Russian Federation’s administrative and territorial units,” which is a pretty way of describing a breakaway autonomous zone removed in all but name from the central authority in Kiev. … For their part, the Ukrainians who elected Poroshenko largely on his campaign promise to ensure the territorial integrity of their country fear that this deal is another kind of sellout: the de facto ceding of the Donbass to Russia, or the perpetuation of an occupation in all but name. This is why protests objecting to the special status law have recently erupted outside the Rada.
“The mood at the ministry, specifically with the new foreign minister and his team, is to get it over with,” a Ukrainian diplomat told me, referring to a then-nascent cease-fire agreement.“There is one fear that we will have a new Transnistria. The other is that [the war]goes on indefinitely. The first is more awful.”
Alexander Motyl, however, argues that a frozen conflict “will actually be to Ukraine’s benefit”:
I’m a huge admirer of Roger Cohen’s writing – and can appreciate many of the thoughts percolating in his latest column on what he sees as a disintegration of the world order. He manages to cite Scottish independence, the rise of ISIS, and the devolved powers to Eastern Ukraine – and even Ebola! – as part of a trend toward dissolution and anarchy.
But when I look at all the developments he is citing, I don’t really see anything that new. Take Iraq – please. What we are witnessing is the second major Sunni revolt since they were summarily deposed from power by the United States in 2003. How is this new? The Sunnis have long since believed in their bones that Iraq is theirs by right to govern. They despise the Shiites now running the show. The entire construct of Iraq in the first place was designed on the premise of permanent Sunni rule over the majority. That rule necessarily had to be despotic – as all attempts to permanently deny rights to a majority in the country must be.
So we removed the despot – as we did in Libya – and we have an ongoing power-struggle that is a continuation of the same power struggle Iraq has been hosting since time immemorial. I mean look at that map on the right, from Wiki on the current division of power and land in Iraq. Does it look familiar? It looks like every map of Iraq’s sectarian divide since time immemorial. And we think we will change that by air-strikes?
My fear is that the catastrophic error of 2003 will never lead to a stable state, because the Sunnis will never tolerate or trust majority Shiite rule. Yes, we bribed them enough to switch sides temporarily in the “surge”. But they knew we’d leave; and they knew what they had to do when we did. The only conceivable way to avoid such a scenario would be to stay in Iraq indefinitely – but that too is untenable, for both the Iraqis and for us.
The Beltway nonetheless decided – against all the evidence – that the surge had worked, that sectarian passions had subsided, and that a multi-sectarian government would be able to overcome the profound rifts in Iraqi society that have always been embedded in its DNA. We were sold a bill of goods – by Petraeus and McCain and the other benign imperialists. They have spun a narrative that Iraq was “solved” in 2009 – and that the absence of US troops led to subsequent failure. But they flatter themselves. We never had any real reason to believe these sectarian divides had been overcome – and after a decade of brutal and traumatizing mutual slaughter, why on earth would they be?
Iraq was unraveled in 2003; in my view, it has thereby become the battle-ground for the simmering, wider Sunni-Shiite civil conflict that has also been a long-running strain in the region. Our own solipsistic focus on ISIS as another al Qaeda against us – again the narrative of the utterly unreconstructed neocon right and the pious interventionist left – misses this simple fact. We cannot see the forest for our own narcissistic tree.
When you look at Russia and Ukraine from the same historical perspective, the unraveling meme also seems unpersuasive. Russia is a proud and ornery and mysterious country. It has gone from global super-power to regional neo-fascist state in a matter of decades. Its sphere of influence has retreated from the edge of Berlin to the boundaries of Ukraine, which it simply controlled for an extremely long time.