Saturday, September 13, 2014

Ukrainian Crisis on Hold

By Stephen Wilson

(Moscow, Russia) A tensely, brooding and at times broken cease-fire has been established since Friday the 5th September. Critics claim it is a highly fragile and fleeting peace and is almost all about to collapse. However, for now, most observers claim though the peace is not perfect, it is largely holding out on most fronts.

               'Pray for my 18 year old Ukrainian cousin who is serving as a conscript in the Ukrainian army but has deserted and planning to cross the border to get refuge in Russia'
plead a Russian English teacher colleague to me.

               Well, given the number of refugees we are encountering we are having to do a lot of praying as well as acting. 

               The Ukrainian and Orthodox churches may be divided on who really caused the war but both are absolutely and implacably agreed on one urgent need; to quickly end the war with a solid and secure peace agreement.

               To paraphrase the English soldier Cromwell, soldiers on both sides should 'Pray to God and keep their gunpowder damp.'

               That a significant number of Ukrainian and separatists want peace is indicated by the facts that a significant number on both sides are deserting. For why on earth would the leaders of the Separatists constantly complain of the lack of volunteers and feel the need to issue a stringent order to shoot deserters.

               Ukrainian soldiers have been constantly complaining of being used as 'mere cannon fodder ' where they are sent on an offensive in a first wave only to be mowed
down by well entrenched defenders of the break-away republics. They are often badly trained,badly fed, poorly paid and ill disciplined. Many of them needlessly perished in a suicidal offensive to seize Donetsk. Instead of taking it they were repelled and driven back. They only succeeded in dissipating the last reserves of almost spent energy. Now the rebels have been winning the war to such an extent that some  feel reluctant to agree to the cease-fire.

               That Ukrainian soldiers are deserting to the other side indicates real desperation.

               Nevertheless, young Russian soldiers who have been ordered to venture into Ukraine have also not had a field day in the war. As many as 80 Russian paratroopers are thought to have died in a botched military operation.

               Although the Russian government attempted to explain away the intrusion of Russian soldiers 'as a map-reading error', very few are convinced. In fact, many of the parents of the soldiers are angry about why their children were sent into a war-zone at a time when the Russian government is busy telling the public they are not intervening in Ukraine.

               Journalists and politicians who have made unwanted inquiries into this incident have been threatened, assaulted and in one case, badly beaten up.

               The death of one poor soldier, Anton Tumanov, best exemplifies the predicaments which young men find themselves in. For it is often the universal case that those who join the army and are sent to war-zones are from the poorest communities. They join the army
to escape ghost towns where there is almost no employment prospects. Even so -called dead-end jobs might represent a luxury. So they unwillingly join the army. This is often the rule in not only Russia and Ukraine, but America and Britain. Twenty-year-old Anton Tumanov came from the town of Komodemranskaya where employment is scarcely provided by two factories and unemployment epidemic. So he went to work in a car plant but could not afford any accommodation so he next went to Moscow where he worked as a construction worker. Despite working for two to three months, he was not paid. Feeling he had run out of options, he enlisted.

                He was later ordered by his commander to enter Ukraine only to be blown to pieces on the 13th August 2014. Like many of the unlucky paratroopers, he has yet to be given a proper grave.

                NO INVASION

                Despite evidence pointing to the intervention of some Russian soldiers and volunteers in Ukraine, Russia has not invaded or attempted an annexation of parts of Ukraine.

                If the Russian government was carrying out a full scale invasion of Ukraine the bombardment would be enmass and awesome. Its presence would be highly conspicious
to say the least. To describe a few tanks, weapons and the presence of volunteers as amounting to an invasion is ludicrious. Most sober political observers and academics           don't make such claims. The Russian government doesn't want to carry out such an invasion as it is fraught with too many high risks. Politics is a continuation of war by other means and can be a more effective tool in exerting influence. It is fair to say that the Russian government is not encouraging, promoting or actively supporting the rebels. On the contrary, some of the most ardent supporters of the rebels accuse Putin of not offering       enough support and even abandoning them. 'Why can't Putin properly invade Ukraine' laments not a Russian but an Englishman! Russian visitors to London were astonished to find many of the locals saying how they like Putin and think he should invade Ukraine to protect people from fascism. Why is this the case? Are those people just eccentric Englishmen? They explained to me that they liked how the Russian government stood up to the Americans whom they resented.

                REFUGEES COME AND GO

                Perhaps one urgent reason why the Russian government has been busy attempting to get sides to accept a full cease-fire and enduring peace is a worsening refugee problem. The United Nations claimed that maybe as many as 730,000 refugees have fled to Russia. As many as 8000 to 10,000 refugees may have come to Moscow itself. An indication of how pervasive this problem remains is the fact that everywhere I go I           encounter their strikingly manifest presence or at least their footprints. For instance, when I go to drink some kvas from a warm, friendly and talkative vendor she shouts to a courier rushing past on a pressing errand 'How is life?' He sadly answers 'Not bad'. She informs me 'He is a refugee from Lugansk. He tried to get a job as a computer programmer, but the pay was too low. So he got a job as a courier. It pays more'. No wonder he looks sad. Refugees have that particular look about them. It is the eyes. They look wounded and sad as if haunted by some traumatic experiences they don't want to speak about. The vendor then told me 'Just across the road a refugee from Lugansk found a job working in the cafe across the road. The refugee women from Donetsk are easy to tell. They often tend to be quite stout, strong and well built.' After leaving to visit my colleague Oksana, she tells me her neighbour Olga is helping their relatives from Lugansk to find work and a place to stay. Later when I go to a class of students down the road, one of them tells me, ' I 'm putting up two single women with children at my dacha and don't know how I will keep them warm during the winter.'

                 At Oksana's place of work, a fellow teacher asks her for advice on how to help her refugee cousins who arestaying at her dacha. Those refugees who come to Moscow and are put up by relatives are the lucky ones. 

                 Many refugees who have come to Moscow have no friends or relatives to help them. They phone up charity groups from the railway stations. Maxim, an aid worker whose job is to help refugees told me, 'Moscow is the worst place for a refugee to come to. Officials have an almost unannounced order to refuse refugees status, work permits and registration of any kind.' Instead, they are to redirect them to other regions of Russia.

                 This attitude of officials has already alienated and embittered many refugees. For they have watched government news reports which show refugees arriving from Ukraine automatically being given forms to fill in, transport to accommodation and work. However, this propaganda is often wholly at odds with the real plight of refugees who come to Moscow. Moscow simply doesn't want them. The city's infrastructure is also strained and threatened by implosion from too many migrants. What awaits refugees in Moscow quickly shatters great expectations of an affluent future. They are shocked to be offered low paid jobs, exorbitantly high rented rooms and being forced into being dependent on charity. Some refugees may well be suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome which is rarely acknowledged, never mind treated in Moscow.

                 There are no free kindergartens in Moscow. One refugee was told she would have to pay 100,000 rubles to place her child in the local kindergarten. Where could a refugee find this kind of money? There is even evidence that some refugees have become so disenchanted with their experience that they have risked returning to Ukraine. One refugee who returned told a woman, 'At least I have a house in Ukraine. But over here?'

                 According to the OSCE observers at the Ukrainian border, on the 27th and 28th August they observed a trickle of refugees returning home to Donbass.

                 Thousands of refugees are returning not to mention fleeing to Russia.

                  It is easy to understand why refugees don't want to stay in Russia. A typical situation tends to be that a family who flees Russia, is placed by relatives in a dacha, in a forest which is remote from the nearest towns with essential services. The dacha has no running water so the family must fetch water from a well and wash their children with this. On top of this they can't find any paid work which would allow them to support themselves. Many refugees feel they are being treated as distainfully as bomzhi (the homeless) and resent this. They did not expect things to be quite this bad in Russia!  Many of those refugees would eagerly return to Ukraine if a secure peace agreement was reached.


                  There is no doubt that this civil war in Ukraine is a dirty war. Both sides have been responsible for committing atrocities, war crimes and unmentionable cruelties. Anyone who has any doubts can consult the pages of the latest Human rights investigation into the war by Amnesty International. The report accuses both sides of kidnapping, imprisoning, torturing and shooting innocent civilians. Neither side in this senseless conflict comes away unscathed. There are few angels and heroes to emerge from this saga.

                  When one side dehumanises the other side by describing them as Colorado Beetles that should be crushed and the other answers that the other side is lice to be eradicated you can see the potential for atrocities arising. All the more reason for persistently and indefatigably striving for peace. There is also another problem to be faced -  Some people thrive on conflict. They find the challenge of war invigorating, exciting and an adventure. A contract soldier informed me of such people he fought along with. While getting out of Voikovskaya metro near the centre of Moscow I encountered an oddly courious  aid group called 'Help Donbass'. It consisted of a daily picket manned by volunteers who held placards, flags of the Republics (one resembles the confederate flag     of the old south (1861-65 American civil war) and a person collecting money. They turned out to be supporters of 'The Other Russia'. They were not just raising money for medicine, but appealing for people to go to volunteer and fight in Ukraine. The appeal sounded more like an advertisement for a holiday brochure. It declared 'Summer, the time for a holiday.     Plan your holiday wisely! Spend your time well!

                  Volunteers from the movement Interbrigade invite you to take part in a hot tour of Novorussia ,Slavyansk, Kramatorsk,Golovka ,Mariupol which await you!'

                   The brochure goes on to say you can man defences, dig trenches, do military training and sit around camp fires. 'Have a rest in Donbass this Summer! You are not a real man unless you have to Donbass.' I almost felt I was reading some Biggle's novel or cartoon for 8-year-old school children. I can now understand why Russians feel the war is being fostered by silly children in a kindergarten. A later issue of a newspaper published a photo of volunteers who had been on a tour but commented 'unfortunately some of the soldiers in the photo have died or been wounded'. Try saying 'unfortunately'  to the parents of those men.

                   The peace proposals from Putin seem quite reasonable on paper. It calls for a full cease-fire, prisoner exchange, a humanitarian convoy to be allowed in, international         observers to help control the situation. It has been followed by 12 conditions for a full cease-fire.

                   Over the past few days the cease-fire has largely held. Yes,there has been fighting by units in some areas but that does not mean the agreement has been a flop. It just has to be full implemented with a great deal of persistence and patience.

                   The problems are that the rebels don't have a completely accepted and acknowledged leader.

                   So one leader might agree with the peace agreement while another continues to fight.

                   Another problem is that some people presume Putin can resolve the problem by snapping his fingers at the rebels. They would like to imagine that Putin is like a tap who can be used to switch off the support of the rebels. But Putin has not that much power over the rebels. In fact, he has a problem exerting any real control over them. If a president of one of those republics can't win authority over them why should he be able to more effectively? However, even if the rebels agreed to a long term cease-fire, President Petro Poroshenko     also feels he can't exert full control of the situation.

                   Feeling the pressure of extreme nationalists and the war-party, he has made two contradictory statements such as ' I completely support peace which we the world and the people of Donetsk want badly' and 'I'm prepared to fight on to the end and even give my life rather than surrender Ukrainian territory.'

                   Timoshenko , who is part of the war party, is reputed to have advocated dropping an atomic bomb on Donetsk and calling for the invasion of Crimea. Many private
and illegal military units and paramilitaries don't want to abide by any agreement. They have discovered from their experience of using physical violence at Maiden that violence can be effective and attain spectacular results, such as the toppling of governments. They might well reason that 'If we can overthrow Yanukovitch, why can't we also overturn Poroshenko if he sells the nationalists out?' So any peace-agreement is very vulnerable to violent conflict or street power junkies.

                   Securing a peace also may mean facing either a dangerous military coup or 'collective bargaining by rioting again!' Only an extraordinary strong and fearless president could contain such extremists.

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