That Flickering Red Line
G7 countries have given Russia another month for pretending to take measures at ‘de-escalation’ while continuing to wage undeclared war on Ukraine. In the meantime France is free to sell warships to Russia and train the Russian navy on how to use them.
For those in Ukraine and eastern Europe awaiting a real response from the USA and EU to Russian aggression, it’s all been like a surreal game. Keep your eye on the red line, watch it move. The news today, as reflected in a Polish newspaper’s headline is that ‘the Red Line is in Poland’. The latest of many resolute statements on Ukraine is that Russian President Vladimir Putin has been given a month to “recognize and negotiate directly with the newly elected leader of Ukraine, stop the flow of fighters and arms across the border and press separatists to disarm, relinquish seized public buildings and join talks with the central authorities in Kiev.”
The first implicit ultimatum [and western cave-in] was: it’s the Crimea and no further. With Russia having gone very much further, the West continued to issue largely redundant warnings about the Russian troops on the border. In fact, the reasons for the troops being there probably included their uses for such robust statements. Russia was told that it would face serious sanctions if it continued to disrupt the May 25 presidential elections. It continued to do just that and no sanctions were forthcoming. Quite the contrary, France is going ahead with the sale of two Mistral warships to Russia and training of Russian navy officers to man them. This stand has been defended by German Chancellor Angela Merkel who stated, incredibly, that stage three sanctions were not needed because Ukraine’s elections had gone ahead.
The logic appears to be that if Ukraine survives Russia’s undeclared war, then it’s business as usual. If it doesn’t, then Poland and the Baltic States may want to consider what that red line actually means. If anything.
Western support for Ukraine’s democratically elected president is obviously welcome, but the cost of Russia’s aggression has already been devastating for Ukraine, and waiting until the EU sees enough destabilization to warrant the third level of sanctions helps neither Ukraine nor the EU.
Huge numbers of people have had to flee the Crimea, and are now being evacuated from the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. This is a major humanitarian crisis for a country plundered by the Yanukovych regime. Even if we leave the Crimea out of the picture, and there is absolutely no justification in doing so, the loss in human life, the personal tragedies and the grave rights violations committed by Kremlin-backed militants are taking a toll on the country.
This is while Putin’s personal rating has skyrocketed in Russia, and the last thing he will feel like doing is backing down.
Nor is it clear from the latest G7 statement that he even has to. Recognizing the results of the election is easy enough as is completing the withdrawal of military forces on the border with Ukraine. If, of course, that means mainland Ukraine, and the G7 has made it clear that as far as Russia’s annexation of the Crimea is concerned, it will go no further than ‘non-acceptance’.
Huge numbers of Russian nationals and stocks of arms and ammunition are already in Ukraine. This has been denied by Russia, but recognized by the US and NATO. What ‘stopping the flow of weapons across the border’ actually means is therefore unclear, as is the requirement that Russia “exercise its influence among armed separatists to lay down their weapons and renounce violence”. We saw this pretence shortly before the May 11 pseudo-referendum. Putin said they shouldn’t hold it and the militants supposedly refused to listen. This is despite the fact that the seizures of cities such as Slovyansk were carried out according to the Crimean scenario. One of the many refugees from Slovyansk has said that from the outset everybody knew that these militants who couldn’t find the main street of the city were Russians.
It is possible that two former Arab students who were reported among the dead militants may not have been working as mercenaries. The bluster on Russian television about supposed American mercenaries, however, makes it likely that if more fighters are needed, they can be found through other means. In a moving appeal, the Mufti of the Spiritual Directorate of Ukraine has called on all Muslims in other countries to keep their mercenaries away.
“You can’t imagine how good things were. We didn’t realize either, by the way. For us it was something that went without saying. We had never had either wars or terrorism. Here Muslims, Christians, Jews had never fought with each other. There weren’t any Muslim pogroms like in Moscow, or killings of sheiks, muftis and imams. Here Muslims are a part of the country, a part of the general history of our land. We are at home here. This is our homeland. We do not exchange our country for money and a stable dictatorship. There are things which are not for sale.”
The words are especially poignant since they could be said about many other religious or ethnic communities in Ukraine. The militants of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic have made it clear that only one faith – the Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate – is acceptable. Believers from other faiths are already facing harassment. It has become dangerous to speak Ukrainian in many places in Donbas. In fact, going out on the street has become dangerous, and the full number of hostages is not known.
The G7 states have made no mention of the virulent hate speech and propaganda on Russian television channels. This is despite the fact that the militants have prioritized switching off Ukrainian channels, have used threats and actual violence to close down many Ukrainian publications, and have immediately turned on Russian channels. The distortion and lies in most Russian media, the constant fakes aimed at convincing viewers that there is a vicious junta in Kyiv, that maddened ‘radicals’ deliberately burned people to death in Odessa, etc have had their effect in Russia where Ukraine is now seen as Russians’ second greatest enemy (after the USA). This barrage of lies is also a part of the aggression against Ukraine.
The role played by Kremlin-controlled media is doubtless also one of the main reasons for Putin’s increased popularity. Even if stern words from the West, failure to shake Putin’s hand, humiliation over Russia’s exclusion and meeting of the now G7 in Brussels, not Sochi do not provoke a backlash, they still mean little if they can be concealed, or aggressively distorted for the public’s consumption.
Back in 2008, a US newspaper ran a headline: “We’re warning you! And if you don’t stop your aggression.. we’ll warn you again!”. There are many reasons for resisting the analogy often drawn between South Ossetia and the Crimea however three months after Russia’s annexation of the latter, and aggression against mainland Ukraine, the identical failure to react more decisively is chilling.