Nuclear Weapons

Is the Ukrainian Crisis Spiraling Out of Control?

04.14.14 | 7 min read | Text by Martin Hellman

Today’s news shows a heightened nuclear risk due to a dangerous feedback process at work in the Ukraine. The New York Times’ page 1 ominous headline was, “Striking Town, Ukraine Forces Defy Warning,” and the Wall Street Journal echoed the danger, “Ukraine Sends Troops East As Pro-Russia Forces Strike.” Is the Ukrainian crisis spiraling out of control, and if so, what might we do to reverse that dangerous process?

The debate has become paralyzed with the West focused on protecting the interim, pro-Western government and its primarily ethnic Ukrainian supporters, while Moscow’s concerns center on protecting ethnic Russians living in Ukraine. With the violence escalating on both sides in what is already a small civil war, the West and Russia each have legitimate concerns, but neither side is taking in the whole picture. Where are the calls for protecting the lives and the rights of both ethnic groups living in the Ukraine?

Instead, the situation is descending into a repeat of the Cold War, where each side pointed to the misdeeds of the other (Soviet subjugation of Eastern Europe versus American subjugation of Latin America), but neither side looked at the errors it was capable of correcting – namely its own. It’s time to break that cycle and start introspecting instead of acting out in anger and blame. Even if one side would do that, it could be a game changer.

To help us introspect, I won’t repeat the reports of atrocities committed by Yanukovych’s government since you are well aware of those from our mainstream media. Instead, I will focus on allegations – and I emphasize that’s all the reports on both sides are until there is a fuller investigation – that the interim government is not as innocent as Western media might lead us to believe. Just as calls for protecting one ethnic group or the other are only half the story, the same is true for each set of allegations. What is desperately needed is an in-depth investigation to sort out the truths from the half-truths from the lies.

In an interview in the Nixon Center’s The National Interest, Sergey Glazyev, a close adviser to Vladimir Putin claims that a February 20 attack by Ukrainian nationalists on five buses carrying ethnic Russians led to Russia’s decision to send troops into the Crimea:

I can furthermore tell you that, even in Crimea, about two weeks before the referendum, there were no plans to use the military among the Russian leadership, and even among our Crimean colleagues. The application of Putin to the Council of the Federation to use force was a reaction to two things – the shooting at a delegation of Crimeans coming back from Kiev who were ambushed and shot at by neo-fascist paramilitaries that stopped the five busses of the delegation, shot several people who protested, and stripped and taunted the rest; and to further threats by Maydan activists to Russians and Russian speakers. The paramilitaries burned the busses, and when Crimea learned of this disgrace, there was nothing that could stop its further course towards independence.

Should such events happen in other parts of Ukraine, people would obviously fight for their rights and safety, and call not just on Russia, but also on the international community, for help. This would be a direct consequence of the fact that, at present, neo-fascists in the South-East of Ukraine are committing outrages, resorting to armed violence, to lynch law, to the burning of houses of people they don’t like, and these aren’t just isolated cases. They began with the secret murder of an old woman on whom they put a sign “Jew and communist.” … The situation is inching closer to civil war, and in a civil war, or in mass cases of armed vigilantes shooting people, regardless of whether the perpetrators wear a police or military uniform, it will be not just Russia, but also the international community that would protect people.

This allegation led me to find an article which included video of the alleged bus attack and interviews with the alleged victims. The article states:

Reporter: On February the 20th, in the Cherkassy Oblast, a mob of armed insurgents stopped several buses with citizens from Simferopol.  The passengers were beat up and dragged out of the bus.   They were then piled up upon each other, they were forced to walk crouching on their heels, and forced to sing the Ukrainian anthem.

Interviewee: they were hammering the buses and pouring petrol on them, on one of their checkpoints they were executing people with shotguns, the buses there were all burned, they were throwing buckets of petrol on our bus and setting fire to it.  When people fled the bus [they] were killed with baseball bats.  We could have resisted, of course, but they all had firearms which they were not hiding.   [They] go around in the middle of the day with assault-rifles and shotguns taken from the Berkut, with hunting rifles and sawed-off shotguns. … 

The article goes on to claim that:

Unlike “official” Kiev, the Ukie blogosphere did pick up on this story, but gave it its own spin: they say that these buses were filled with pro-Russian provocateurs which they call “titushki” so that is why they got stopped, “arrested” and burned.  … for the people of Crimea this is yet another reason to want out for the ugly Banderastan [a reference to Stepan Bandera who is seen as a national hero by most Ukrainians, but a Nazi collaborator by most Russians] the US and EU are building in the Ukraine.

A colleague who is fluent in Russian watched the video and sent me the following observations:

The video interviews people who allegedly suffered at the hands of Ukrainian nationalists.  The two men interviewed (in Russian) and who identified themselves as Russian speaking Crimeans said that they were beaten and threatened with openly displayed firearms by Ukrainian nationalists.  No evidence was presented as to how they know that’s who threatened them.  The voice-over narration gravely said:  “These nationalist’s will not be punished by Ukraine.  Ukraine does not punish her own.”  

Unfortunately, there is no mention on the video of who produced it. I don’t think this video is staged but it is clearly pushing a pro-Russian agenda.

I tried to find out who the blogger was who wrote this article, but could only find an Asia Times Online page which said, “[The author] is an anonymous blogger and occasional contributor to Asia Times Online who writes at The Vineyard of the Saker.”

My blog post of March 6 noted that the Estonian Foreign Minister, Urmas Paet, in what he thought was a private phone call – but turned out to be tapped and leaked – stated:

… there is now stronger and stronger understanding that behind [the] snipers, it was not Yanukovych, but it was somebody from the new coalition.

Especially given Estonia’s anti-Russian stance, this “declaration against self-interest” deserves further investigation, but has received almost no attention in the West. A recent exception was an investigative report by German public television, which claims strong evidence that the dead protestors were hit by sniper fire from locations controlled by other protestors, and particularly by what the article calls “the controversial Svoboda party.” It concludes:

The Kiev Prosecutor General’s Office [of the interim government] is confident in their assessment [that Yanukovych’s people are to blame for the sniper fire, but] we are not.” 

I will end this post with excerpts from Pros. Stephen Cohen’s recent article on the crisis which brings its nuclear risk into clearer focus and provides a context:

If NATO forces move toward Poland’s border with Ukraine, as is being called for in Washington and Europe, Moscow is likely to send its forces into eastern Ukraine. The result would be a danger of war comparable to the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. … 

Why did this happen? … The answer given by the Obama administration, and overwhelmingly by the US political-media establishment, is that President Vladimir Putin is solely to blame. … But there is an alternative explanation, one more in accord with the facts. Beginning with the Clinton administration, and supported by every subsequent Republican and Democratic president and Congress, the US-led West has unrelentingly moved its military, political and economic power ever closer to post-Soviet Russia. … this bipartisan, winner-take-all approach has come in various forms.

They include US-funded “democracy promotion” NGOs more deeply involved in Russia’s internal politics than foreign ones are permitted to be in our country; the 1999 bombing of Moscow’s Slav ally Serbia, forcibly detaching its historic province of Kosovo; a US military outpost in former Soviet Georgia (along with Ukraine, one of Putin’s previously declared “red lines”), contributing to a brief proxy war in 2008 … 

All of this has unfolded, sincerely for some proponents, in the name of “democracy” and “sovereign choice” for the many countries involved, but the underlying geopolitical agenda has been clear. During the … 2004 “Orange Revolution,” an influential GOP columnist, Charles Krauthammer, acknowledged, “This is about Russia first, democracy only second…. The West wants to finish the job begun with the fall of the Berlin Wall and continue Europe’s march to the east…. The great prize is Ukraine.” … 

Nothing in Washington’s replies diminishes Putin’s reasonable belief that the EU trade agreement rejected by Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in November, and Yanukovych’s overthrow in February by violent street protests, leading to the current “illegitimate” government, were intended to sever Ukraine’s centuries-long ties with Russia and bind it to NATO. … the White House opposes new parliamentary elections, which would leave the existing Parliament strongly influenced, even intimidated, by its ultranationalist deputies and their armed street supporters, who recently threatened to impose their will directly by entering the building.