Peace in Ukraine?

In a recent interview, President Zelensky said that unless Ukraine can hold Bakhmut, he will come under immense pressure, at home and abroad, to negotiate a peace with Russia. It is possible to interpret this in four ways.

1 Zelensky is trying to stiffen the resolve of the troops in Bakhmut, whose morale is low, after conceding inch after inch of ground and terrible losses, fully aware that they are virtually surrounded and after hearing for weeks and weeks about a relief counter offensive that never arrives.

2 He is putting pressure on NATO to up its military supplies, warning them that there is a limit beyond which the Ukrainian armed forces and people will no longer fight on their behalf.

3 He is giving himself an opening to go for such negotiations if Bakhmut does fall, to cut his country’s losses in all respects – as arguing for such negotiations in public hitherto has be tantamount to treason and people have been assassinated for doing so. It is of some significance in this context that, while the USA dismissed the Chinese Peace Plan outright, Zelensky didn’t.

4 He is doing all three at once.

A negotiated peace then is no longer unthinkable. Even his more recent statement that Ukraine would be willing to discuss the status of Crimea if the offensive that has been flagged up for the end of this month and start of May manages to get through to the Black Sea, underlines that negotiation over territory is not off the table. Obviously he does not talk about what will happen if the offensive is a debacle, but this would be a much bigger deal than simply losing control of Bakhmut, which is slowly happening.

Its evident that NATO has no end game beyond crossing its fingers and hoping for the best. Its military industrial complex isn’t designed around wars of attrition with an “almost peer” military.

  • It is designed to produce immensely expensive and complex weaponry requiring months of training to use and squads of maintenance crew to keep going. These are very profitable for its manufacturers and very effective in short wars in which any resistance is qualitatively outgunned. Not so much in this war, in which the capacity to mass produce shells is more decisive. So, all they can do is shovel in enough aid to keep the war going, but not enough to turn the tide.
  • With the sanctions only adopted by direct allies and having blown back hard on Europe primarily, their presumption that the economic war would do the job has failed.
  • The alternative, of decisive direct intervention would be World War 3 and we’d all die.

So, in the meantime, hundreds of men, mostly Ukrainians, are dying every day with no prospect of “winning”. While a reader of the Guardian here might well believe that the Russians have lost 200,000 troops, because they paper they (still) trust says so, the BBC Russian Service calculated just 10,002 killed by December last year, the Russians themselves say they have lost 14,000 and the Israeli Security Agency Mossad calculated 18,840 last month. With the US reckoning on at least 100,000 Ukrainian soldiers killed that’s a loss ratio of at least 5 to 1 that’s completely unsustainable. Something has to give. And in the interests of not throwing away more and more lives in a hopeless fight, the sooner the better.

The outlines of a possible peace are quite clear and very like the initial Russian call before last February. Demilitarisation of Ukraine – demobilisation of the army and redeployment in reconstruction – no membership of NATO, recognition that the areas that have seceded from Ukraine don’t want to be part of it and have as much right to join the Russian Federation as the West of Ukraine does to stay out of it and mutual security guarantees between Russia and NATO, to allow both sides to de-escalate and put scheduled expansions of military budgets to more constructive use. This will open a period of intense struggle in Ukraine and NATO countries, because the war will be seen to have been futile, the far right will cry betrayal and “stab in the back” resentments at NATO might well lead to all sorts of unpredictable blowbacks, and the reconstruction deal that Zelensky has agreed with Blackrock looks like creating a neo liberal dystopia. One motivation for trying to prolong the war on their part.

Those, in USC and elsewhere, who argue for the NATO/Kyiv war aim of restoring sovereignty over all of Ukraine’s pre 2014 borders and for “Russian troops out” are ignoring a political reality within pre 2014 Ukraine, which is that there has been a civil war there since the population of the Donbass rebelled against the overthrow of a government that they had voted for. There is no doubt that the Maidan movement in Kyiv had popular support in that part of Ukraine. It was also taken advantage of by the US and EU. And hegemonised by the far right. USC people tend to emphasise the first point and turn their eyes away from the latter two, but all three are true and have to be taken into account.

The rebellion against that in Donbass has been described like this in New Left Review. After the Maidan events “opposition to the new government was broad. In late February, some 3,500 elected officials gathered at an anti-Maidan conference in Kharkiv. The following day, the Kiev parliament repealed protections for Russian as a regional language. The anti-Maidan uprisings in Eastern Ukraine copied the Kiev model of occupying central squares and taking over government buildings. The security forces were also divided; in some areas the local police made no effort to stop the anti-Maidan protestors. In cities like Kharkiv or Odessa, Kiev’s authority prevailed. In hardscrabble towns like Donetsk and Luhansk, popular militias made up of miners, truck drivers, security guards and the local unemployed stormed the regional-administration offices and declared peoples republics…” In effect a parallel movement. Arguing for Ukraine’s right to self determination while denying it to the people of the Donbass is wilfully inconsistent.

The initial, rather cautious, Russian intervention that summer was to prevent this uprising being completely crushed by the Ukrainian army. The ensuing civil war killed over 14,000 people, mostly in the Donbass Republics, over 3,000 of them civilians.

They have a memorial garden in Donetsk City to all the children that have been killed by Ukrainian shelling. And these kids are just as dead as any killed in Western Ukraine. They won’t get the full Fergal Keane treatment on the BBC, but they are just as dead. While Donetsk holds these graves…

The Donbass militia, which is locally recruited and has done a lot of the front line fighting even after last February, is 44,000 strong. They see themselves as Russian, and, since the referendums last autumn (far from perfect though they were) see their land as part of Russia. Calling for them to “withdraw” is calling for them to leave their homes, dismiss their own right to self-determination and become refugees, alongside the 3 million or so others who have fled to Russia during the conflict – about a third of the total (and the largest single destination country). This would also apply to a large number of non-combatants. Given that the Ukrainian armed forces “cleanse” captured areas of “saboteurs and collaborators” and one senior politician has called for the local “Sovoks” to be put in concentration camps after “liberation”, a very large proportion of the local population would have to abandon their homes to keep safe. USC is actually calling for ethnic cleansing.

If you doubt that, here are some statements by leading spokespeople in Kyiv in an ongoing discussion about how Ukraine should reintegrate the territories lost after the Maidan. There are various perspectives on this, from the genocidal to the more precisely targeted. The solutions range from wholesale killing, driving out the local population in whole or in part, to filtration measures for the population to identify ‘agents’ and ‘proponents of the ‘Russki Mir’ ie pro Russians, more selective punishment for anyone associated with military resistance overarched by ‘cultural’ measures, re-education, re-naming everything, forbidding use of Russian and so on.

  • July 2014 – MIkhail Koval (Ukrainian Minister of Defence) states that special filtration measures are needed to ‘identify those linked to separatism’
  • August 2014 – Bogdan Butkevich (journalist) speaking on live TV states that Ukraine should free itself from ‘excess people’ in the Donbass and that ‘some people need to simply be killed’
  • In 2018 the Ministry of Interior under Avakov proposed a law on deoccupation and reintegration and a law on collaborators. These were passed in February that year. The laws effectively suspended citizenship to suspected ‘collaborators’ and denied them political rights, and provided almost unlimited powers to the military in the ‘liberated territories’
  • In 2019 Oleg Radik (journalist) wrote that ‘when we go in there, there’ll be 40 years of purges and anti-terror, a ban on the use of Russian by state officials. Close all the higher education institutions, let them study in Lvov.’
  • November 2020 the Prime Minister Denis Shmigal proposes Bill No.4 327 which allows the SBU to identify people to be {forcibly} interned by the military.
  • In March 2021 Alexei Reznikov (vice Prime Minister for the Temporarily Occupied Territories) discusses the removal (Otseleniya) of Russians in Crimea (some 500k people).
  • In August 2021 President Zelenskii told Donbass residents who think they’re Russian ‘to go to Russia’.

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