Kremlin-orchestrated "federalist" protest and western inaction
Donetsk, April 6
The seizure by pro-Russian separatists of administrative buildings in Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv on Sunday was widely expected. The conflict was predicted not because of the “sharp rise in tension” in Russian-speaking eastern regions reported by western information agencies. This tension is not borne out by the relatively small numbers involved in the disturbances and dramatically at odds with the results of yet another survey just posted. It is, however, fully in line with evidence of Russian interference and plans to repeat the Crimean scenario. Over the last weeks, NATO and western governments have been lavish with stern warnings against attempts by Russia to use its forces on Ukraine’s mainland, and very sparing with sanctions. As of late Monday morning, there is silence about the conflict unfolding in three eastern regions although everybody knows that the disturbances in eastern parts of Ukraine are being deliberately orchestrated to justify the Kremlin’s demands for Ukraine’s “federalization”, a euphemism for Russia exerting major influence over a large area of Ukraine.
An IRI survey just published, which included the Crimea, noted that “when asked what the status of Crimea should be, a majority in all regions said it should remain a part of Ukraine in some manner (West – 91 %, centre - 85%; South – 57%; East – 52%. This is in stark contrast to the 97 percent of voters who supposedly voted in support of the referendum to join Russia”.
The numbers in all three regions involved in Sunday’s disturbances were not large – around two thousand, with around 50 involved in seizing the buildings. One of the problems in all cities involved was – and remains - the failure by the enforcement bodies to act decisively.
Late Sunday evening the head of the Donetsk Regional Police, Konstantin Pozhydaev denied that the police had changed sides and joined the separatists. These claims were fuelled by the separatists themselves, but also by police passiveness. The police claimed that they showed little resistance to avoid bloodshed, both out on the street and when a group of around 50 pro-Russian demonstrators, most masked, with balaclavas, broke into the regional administration building, pulled down the Ukrainian flag and hoisted a Russian one. The separatists set a deadline of midnight for their demand that deputies vote for a referendum on the status of the Donetsk oblast. Such a referendum would be as illegal as that held in the Crimea since any decision involving Ukraine’s borders, status, etc., must be decided by a nationwide referendum.
There have been three seizures of the Donetsk regional administration and numerous disturbances in the largely Russian-speaking region which Viktor Yanukovych and most of the Party of the Regions people he installed in power are from. It is widely believed that some of them are playing a major role in stirring up the present troubles. There has been effective silence from billionaire and former Party of the Regions MP, Renat Akhmetov. In fact, his US lawyers recently adopted heavy-handed methods to silence Ukrainian and Azerbaijani media which dared to criticize their client for this silence.
There may well be residents of this region, and others, who genuinely want to join Russia, and know what they mean when they chant "We want Russia and Stalin!" and express support for the Berkut riot police accused of involving in the gunning down of unarmed protesters in February. It would, however, be overly charitable to assume ideological motivation for the actions of most of those masked young men who seized the government building. A large number are almost certainly titushki, or hired thugs, either local or brought in from Russia. It is noteworthy that in Dnipropetrovsk where titushki worked in close cooperation with the police against EuroMaidan activists in January, there has been no trouble since oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky was made governor. Akhmetov’s influence in Donetsk is probably even greater, making his silence particularly telling.
In Luhansk itself, separatists seized the SBU [Security Service] building and forced the release of six separatists detained after previous disturbances. EuroMaidan SOS has posted video footage showing money being paid out to demonstrators outside the building. In Severodonetsk, around one thousand pro-Russian demonstrators prevented a flash-mob in support of Ukrainian unity. The Luhansk regional branch of the Committee of Voters of Ukraine [CVU] points out that the disturbances had been openly discussed on social networks. It demands the dismissal of the head of police, Anatoly Zhdanov, or prosecution of those responsible for the violence which left six people injured, particularly those who spent the last two days calling others on social networks to take part in the violence. CVU calls on all those political parties in opposition to the separatists to refrain from mass events in the near future. “You shouldn’t help Russia in increasing the activity of their fifth column and in destabilizing the situation”
Both in Donetsk and Luhansk, the media report that the separatists have been extremely aggressive towards Ukrainian journalists.
In Kharkiv the roughly 2 thousand separatists were not so selective, demonstrating aggression all around. After going to picket both the Russian and Polish embassies, a rumour went around that some members of the nationalist Right Sector were nearby and the mob set off in search. They found musicians and other EuroMaidan supporters, and basically set upon them. How much or little the police did is unclear, but it was manifestly not enough. The same applies to the later seizure of the Kharkiv regional administration building.
On Monday morning Interior Minister Arsen Avakov announced that police had freed the regional administration building in Kharkiv. There is disturbing disagreement amongst human rights activists apparently all at the scene as to whether or not this is true. There are equally worrying reports of apparent collaboration between separatists and local police.
“Unfortunately, it’s all like in the Crimea”
This was the response of Oleksandra Dvoretska, a human rights activist from the Crimea to such conflicting stories. The situation is critical, not only because of the human cost of taking measures which could result in bloodshed. Since Russian troops seized government buildings in Simferopol on Feb 27, Ukraine’s government, the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar people and other groups have been actively trying to avoid being drawn into conflict and with good reason. The Kremlin has continued to push its line that it is “protecting” Russian-speakers and Russian nationals, and nothing would be more convenient than violence which could be used as a pretext for intervention. However stern the minister’s promises of tough measures may be, four years of the Yanukovych regime took its toll on a police force which had never inspired any particular trust. The constant reports of the police standing and watching while peaceful protesters come under attack suggest that at least some in the police force are not answering to the top management.
All of this has been spelled out any number of times in the media, as have the painfully clear analogies with Hitler’s annexation of Austria and subsequent aggression culminating in World War II. The disturbances appear to have been coordinated both between themselves and as backup for Russia’s demands for Ukrainian "federalization". The involvement by Russia that this entails effectively constitutes an act of aggression by the latter and encroachment upon Ukraine’s sovereignty. Western signatories to the 1994 Budapest Memorandum have already breached their commitment to Ukraine and let Russia annex the Crimea. Are they also going to pretend that this is not the aggression the “serious consequences” of which they keep warning?