Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1195, (1-7 May 2014)
Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Issue 1195, (1-7 May 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Ukrainian crucible

In Ukraine, high stakes are in play. But great powers are reluctant to be seen to intervene directly, leaving resolution of the crisis up in the air, writes Gamal Nkrumah

Al-Ahram Weekly

Western Ukraine is struggling to shake off the Soviet legacy and yet is making no attempt to deal earnestly with the legacy of grand corruption. Who will take charge of a serious strategy designed to drag the country to emerging market status? The European Union, to put it bluntly, cannot. And neither can the United States.

The pressure to staunch the mafia-like patronage system that underpinned Ukraine’s relative political stability in the past few years since the so-called Orange Revolution has been building at home and abroad. Yet successive Ukrainian governments scarcely met efficiently the basic needs of the Ukrainian masses. 

Little solace can be taken from the fighting on the ground in eastern Ukraine. With few signs of a shift in policy by outsiders or insiders, a bloody stalemate in Ukraine looks set to persist. The anti-Russian government in the Ukrainian capital Kiev toppled the government of democratically elected ex-president Viktor Yanukovytch.

Yet the ousted Ukrainian president may have overplayed his hand, according to his detractors, by seeking refuge across the border in Russia. Yanukovytch, who served as the governor of Donetsk Oblast, a province in eastern Ukraine, from 1997 to 2002 nonetheless still has a large following in eastern half of the country, including Donetsk. A staunch supporter of Yanukovytch, Gennady Kernes, the mayor of Kharkov, the largest city in eastern Ukraine, was reported to be battling for survival in hospital after unknown assailants attempted to assassinate him. 

Ukraine’s far-right ultra-nationalist group, the Right Sector, is causing something of a political commotion in the Russian-speaking eastern part of the country. It is targeting pro-Moscow supporters for retribution. 

Yet pro-Kremlin eastern Ukrainians are closing in on the strongholds of those they consider neo-Nazis. The pro-West western Ukrainians call the pro-Moscow eastern Ukrainians “terrorists”. The new pro-West political establishment in Kiev offers political reform to take into account the Russian-speaking minorities in eastern and southern Ukraine. But its pronouncements echo previously un-kept promises and sound hollow. 

The authorities in Kiev hope that Western powers will take action to enforce a de-facto no fly zone in Ukraine, enabling them to tighten their grip on pro-Moscow eastern Ukraine, which is still contested territory. 

Western powers appear adamant and resolved to sit on their hands. They are resolutely reluctant to intervene directly in Ukraine. Moscow, too, vehemently denies the charge of military or political intervention in eastern Ukraine. “Russia’s airspace monitoring systems have not registered any violations of air borders of the states adjacent to Russia, including Ukraine,” a Kremlin official retorted. 

Washington sounds another death knell for diplomacy. “Russia’s involvement in the recent violence in eastern Ukraine is indisputable,” a White House statement declared this week. The US is stepping up the pressure on Moscow. Washington on Monday froze the assets of and imposed visa restrictions on seven powerful Russian politicians closely affiliated to Russian President Vladimir Putin, and also announced that it sanctioned 17 Russian firms in reprisal for Moscow’s supposed intervention in Ukraine. Among those sanctioned was Igor Sechin, head of the Russian state energy giant Rosnef.

The odds against Kiev are stacking up, though. The Ukrainian authorities claim that Russian fighter jets violated Ukrainian airspace seven times last Saturday, an assertion that Moscow emphatically refutes. 

What the West describes derisively as the Kremlin’s “cronies” are seen in Russia and Russian-speaking parts of eastern Ukraine as freedom fighters. Will western Ukrainian plans to integrate Ukraine with the West now be stymied?

The West’s vaunted reputation, according to Western media, for even-handedness as far as the Ukrainian crisis is concerned has withered in recent weeks. What fuels suspicion of Western motives in eastern Ukraine is a broad dislike of pro-West politicians in Kiev. “The United Nations has given no such [peacekeeping] mandate to the Russians. Everybody is already fed up with Russia’s games with peacekeeping,” Ukraine’s acting Defence Minister Myhailo Koval, extrapolated.

Russia will not stay silent if the European Union issues Schengen visas to Crimean residents only on Ukrainian passports, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stressed. “If the European Union takes such steps, I am convinced that we will reply to this so that the EU will understand that blatant violation of human rights is unacceptable,” Lavrov threatened. 

“Russian military forces are based on the territory of our country. From time to time they hold scheduled, unscheduled and surprise military exercises,” Lavrov elucidated. 

Last week’s meeting between Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry in Paris produced no tangible results. And matters came to a head when staff members of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), of which Russia is part, were kidnapped in eastern Ukraine. Of the eight OSCE staff, one was later released on grounds of ill health. Western powers have pleaded with Moscow to secure the release of the OSCE observer mission in Ukraine. Moscow, in turn, pledged to work to free the remaining seven OSCE observers held hostage by pro-Russian insurrectionists in eastern Ukraine.

Pro-Kremlin Ukrainians contend that the OSCE observer mission members are saboteurs spying on behalf of NATO. The forces loyal to Yukanovytch and sympathetic to Moscow have been pinning down eastern Ukrainian cities that have been at the heart of the resistance to the leaders of the putsch in Kiev. 

Local pro-Moscow leaders in eastern Ukraine are digging in. The intensification of sporadic fighting in eastern Ukraine is heightening political tensions across the country. Vyacheslav Ponomarev, the self-proclaimed people’s mayor of Russian-speaking eastern Ukrainian city of Slovyansk and leader of a pro-Russian group, said the detained group could be released in exchange for jailed pro-Russian activists.

“As we found maps on them containing information about the location of our checkpoints, we get the impression that they are officers carrying out a certain spying mission,” Ponomarev told reporters in Slovyansk.

Meanwhile, as Al-Ahram Weekly went to press, the fate of the kidnapped OSCE staff in eastern Ukraine was unknown. They were still presumably held hostage. Interim Ukrainian President Arseniy Yatsenyuk declared that the kidnapping of the OSCE personnel was “proof that these so-called peaceful protesters with Russian ideas are terrorists”.

Russia protested its innocence in the affair. “We do not have any hidden agenda. We want Ukraine to be a peaceful, stable and friendly country, with full respect to the country’s desire to co-operate with Russia, Europe, the United States and whoever they want. Sticking to these positions we can attain much,” Lavrov was quoted as saying. 

So, is there no end to the Ukrainian crisis in sight? On the face of things, international attempts to end the Ukrainian crisis increasingly look like an exercise in futility.

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