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Brian Bonner: Are Ukraine and Russia at war or not?

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March 25, 2014, 1:52 p.m. | Op-ed — by Brian Bonner

Russian navy sailors stand on the deck of their ship, the 'Suzdalets' ASW corvette, making its way in the bay of the Crimean city of Sevastopol on March 25, 2014. Ukraine ordered yesterday its outnumbered troops to withdraw from Crimea after Russia's lightning annexation of the peninsula as world leaders met for emergency talks on the worst East-West standoff since the Cold War. AFP PHOTO/ VIKTOR DRACHEV
© AFP

Brian Bonner

Brian Bonner has served as the chief editor of the Kyiv Post since 2008. He also held the job in 1999, three years after first arriving in Ukraine to teach journalism. Bonner is a veteran American journalist who spent most of his professional life with the St. Paul Pioneer Press in Minnesota, where he covered international, national and local news during a nearly 24-year career in which he was a staff writer and an assigning editor. For American newspapers, he has reported from abroad in Russia, Ukraine, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Laos. Bonner left the St. Paul newspaper in 2007 to become the associate director of international communications at the Campaign For Tobacco-Free Kids in Washington, D.C. He also worked as a member of the core teams with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe during six election observation missions in Ukraine, Belarus, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. To contact: email bribonner@gmail.com, Facebook at www.facebook.com/brianbonner, Twitter @BSBonner, Skype at brian.bonner1959.

Can someone help me with answers, starting with the question in the headline: Is there a war going on or not?

In less than a month, Russia's army has invaded Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, held a bogus referendum and annexed nearly 5 percent of Ukraine’s land and people as part of the Russian Federation. And Kremlin leaders have done it all in ways that violate international law and make them war criminals by hiding their troops’ identities and denying their presence.

Yet there is no official declaration of war from Ukraine’s side, or from the Russian side, for that matter.

By and large, there was also no fighting back from Ukraine’s military as Russia’s military seized Ukraine’s bases and military equipment in Crimea. There were simply no orders to fight coming from the top military commanders and no leadership either, for that matter. If Ukrainians had strategically decided they weren’t going to fight, why did Ukraine’s leaders wait until March 24 to order a retreat?

If Ukraine is seriously concerned about an invasion of Russian forces in southeastern Ukraine, why isn’t it putting the economy and the military on a war footing? We hear about the mobilization of a National Guard and military redeployment, but there’s no widespread evidence that Ukrainian society as a whole is gearing up for defense and the prospect of war.

Why are the borders still open between Ukraine and Russia?

Why are at least visas still not required between Ukrainians and Russians who want to travel to the other country?

One official explanation is that there are up to 3 million Ukrainians trying to make a living in Russia, and that the imposition of visas will hurt them most. Another answer is that Ukraine, unlike Russia, is not technically ready to introduce visas.

But neither of these explanations are satisfactory in time of war. If Russia wants to expel Ukrainians working in its country, it can do so. But there's no reason why the rest of Ukraine should be doing business as usual with the enemy.

With respect to Russian-occupied Crimea, why are water and electrical supplies not being reduced -- at least sporadically to get the Kremlin’s attention -- from Ukraine’s mainland to Russian-held Crimea? That step would force the Kremlin to the negotiating table, something no other measures have succeeded in doing thus far.

If the answer to these questions is that Ukraine cannot economically afford to close its border with Russia, then how would the nation be able to defend itself against a Russian military invasion of the mainland if it cannot survive economically on its own?

Russia has stolen Crimea – and seized all of its state property – as well as frozen assets of Ukrainian businesspeople in Russia who are cooperating with the new government in Ukraine. This deserves a similar response.

As respected Ukraine analyst Anders Aslund, a senior fellow with the Peterson Institute of International Economics in Washington, D.C., wrote on March 24: This tragedy has turned into “a theater of the absurd.” 

Aslund outlined some introductory steps that I agree with for starters:

“Ukraine should cease to import gas from Gazprom, since Gazprom acts like an organized crime syndicate poisoning Ukraine with its corruption. Gazprom still needs Ukraine’s gas transit system for half of its exports to Europe. Considering its business habits, Ukraine should only allow such transit if Gazprom prepays for the transit,” Aslund wrote. “In war, the confiscation of the enemy’s state property is commonplace. If Russia continues with its confiscation of Ukrainian private assets in both Russia and Crimea, the Ukrainian government needs to consider the nationalization of the four Russian state banks in Ukraine, which hold about 15 percent of all Ukrainian banking assets.”

I would go further.

On the economic front, there should be a “war tax” on everyone, especially the nation’s richest, including its oligarchs.

If Ukraine is asking the West for economic and military help and sacrifice, where is its own to meet the assault on its national sovereignty and territory?

How can the International Monetary Fund and others know that any money given or lent to Ukraine will be well-spent when, as the new government alleges, $35 billion in loans under deposed President Viktor Yanukovych went missing?

The new team of interim President Oleksandr Turchynov and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk promise accountability, but I haven’t seen much systemic change in behavior or institutions to ensure this will take place. 

I also haven’t seen anything approaching a full-scale national mobilization to meet the threat to Ukraine’s survival as a nation. This suggests to me that many in Ukraine are not taking the Russian threat seriously enough – yet. 

The economic bite is already real, with Ukraine’s hrvynia losing more than 20 percent of its value this year alone. This sad fact alone should be enough to put the national economy on a war footing.

On the military front, the army was "weakened .. to the point where in the words of the prime minister -- we don't have anything that floats, flies or runs,” U.S. Senator Dick Durbin (Democrat-Illinois) said during his visit to Ukraine this month.

If it’s true that Ukraine needs everything and that it has nothing to fight with and only 6,000 combat-ready soldiers, as its leaders recently told the visiting American senators, then why should the West give military aid to Ukraine? Wouldn’t this military hardware end up in the hands of the Russians in the event of a Kremlin military invasion, as Ukraine’s Crimean military equipment is now?

If Russia’s military can easily overwhelm Ukraine’s military at any point, then maybe another type of defense is needed, such as guerrilla warfare or non-violent resistance.

In short, if Ukraine is not moving to a war footing and is not asking its citizens to sacrifice deeply to defend the freedom of its motherland, then Ukrainians should lower their expectations from the rest of the world in terms of financial and military assistance.

This strange conflict may explain the weak response from the leaders of the G7 nations who met in The Hague, Netherlands.

To cut to the chase of the March 24 statement, it’s this: The West has decided it’s not going to do anything more to help Ukraine get Crimea back from Russia. But it will act, maybe, if Russia invades Ukraine’s mainland.

“We remain ready to intensify actions including coordinated sectoral sanctions that will have an increasingly significant impact on the Russian economy, if Russia continues to escalate this situation,” the statement said.

I guess the bottom line is that we are living in the midst of one of the world’s stranger conflicts.

It is a conflict in which both nations’ militaries are massed on the same borders that millions of Ukrainians and Russian civilians are crossing daily to do business or visit relatives, just as they always have.

We are in a conflict in which the two casualties – one on each side – were mourned together at a joint funeral this month in Simferopol.

We are in a conflict in which Ukraine says it will not accept Russia’s annexation of Crimea, but is not matching its words with actions or articulating a plan to its people for how to get it back.

Let's hope Ukraine's interim leaders know something that I don't about a diplomatic solution in the offing. But from parliament's performance on March 25, lawmakers appear to be as panicked and confused as anybody as they trade accusations and replace its defense minister.

I still believe that somehow, in the long run, Ukraine will win and Russia will lose in this conflict.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has already lost because he has shown the international community that the only way he can advance his nation is through military conquest and jingoism, not economic might or ideological superiority. The problem with Putin’s resorting to violence is that his military is no match for the United States or its NATO allies, if it comes to that, his demise will be speedy.

The only way for Ukraine to get Crimea back is if Putin is no longer in power and Russia becomes a democracy, not a dictatorship as it has been for centuries, with the exception of the brief period of chaos that followed the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.

But as the leaders of the G7 nations showed on March 25, the West is not only in no hurry to help Ukraine. Western leaders are also in no hurry to help the world get rid of the cancer of Putinism. That’s the sad fact today.

London banks still love Russian oligarch money. The French will probably still love warship contracts with Russia. The Germans still love their gas contracts with Gazprom and its shameless German shill, ex-German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who went on Putin’s payroll.

If the West and Ukraine are not going to fight a war against Putin with all the economic, political and military weapons at their disposal, then they should get used to living with him. Eventually, Putin will be undermined from within as more Russians realize that they are living in a propagandistic kleptocracy and as more ex-Soviet neighbors wake up to the fact that they could be the next Ukraine.

But Putin’s demise may still be a long way off, and the weak response from Ukraine and the West is one reason why.

If, in the meantime, neither Ukrainians nor the West is willing to fight or slap on more biting sanctions, even if it means self-sacrifice, then at least America and the European Union should have the decency to drop visa requirements and increase immigration quotas for Ukrainians who no do not want to live in a Putin vassal state and are fed up with the inaction, indifference or incompetence all around them.

Kyiv Post chief editor Brian Bonner can be reached at bribonner@gmail.com

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