In Digest, Ukraine

By Jon Hellevig, published on Russia Insider, April 13, 2015

Reflecting on my visit in Donetsk last week, what strikes me the most is the total absence of Russia, in every respect. Obviously there are no signs of Russian military hardware or personnel; but not only that, Russia does not participate in building Donetsk statehood in any way. Russia has not even moved to ease the economic blockade imposed by the Ukrainians, which it could do by recognizing customs documents issued by Donetsk authorities. The only Russian presence is the humanitarian aid that is periodically hauled in by white truck convoys.

NATO bases surrounding Russia

NATO bases surrounding Russia

The impression one gets is that Russia is fully committed to doing everything from its own side to ensure the implementation of the Minsk agreements, at any cost, and using its influence on the people’s militia to make them abide as well.

Once again, Russia has chosen the legalistic approach by adhering to agreements. Many are baffled by this approach, knowing that the other party, that is, the West and its puppet government in Kiev, could not care less. Certainly Russia must know that it cannot impress the West in any way with such respect for agreements. Whatever it does, it will continuously be accused of breach of agreements and incursions into Ukraine.

It seems to me that Russia is motivated by other concerns than the predictable Western reaction. Primarily, Russia seems to be interested in actually seeing the Minsk accords through, and secondly in establishing its case in front of the larger global community, rather than just the West. Russia’s real friends, China, the other BRICS countries, the many countries of Asia, South America and Africa must be convinced that Russia wants peace.

It should be noted, though, that the Minsk accords do not actually impose any obligations on Russia; for Russia it is just a question of refraining from actions that could be seen to fuel separatism.  The key to the implementation of the peace plan is with Kiev. Cessation of military hostilities and the withdrawal of heavy weaponry is imposed on both Kiev and the rebel governments. The Donetsk and Lugansk troops have implemented these conditions for their part, but the Kiev military keeps attacking the frontlines and heavily shelling Donetsk. I experienced this first hand visiting the district near the airport with a group of journalists last Thursday. There was a constant rumbling of artillery shelling in the background.

Apart from the military withdrawal, all of the obligations are squarely and solely on Kiev, which must make constitutional reforms to grant autonomy to parts of Donetsk and Lugansk and pass other legal acts as outlined in the Minsk protocol. So far, Kiev is in blatant breach of these obligations and there does not seem to be any positive will to abide by them. The deadline for passing the constitutional reforms according to the Ukrainian constitutional procedures is about to close.

This is a waiting game. Russia and the Donbass authorities must sit out all the Minsk deadlines. Which of the interested parties want to see the ceasefire accords fail? If the ceasefire fails, as it likely will, then the Donetsk and Lugansk republics will take the final steps towards statehood and Russia will be legally free to support them.

In the meanwhile dark clouds of war have been gathering in Europe. The security system has considerably deteriorated, especially in developments on each side of the Baltic Sea. This might push Russia to reconsider its role in Donbass. The governments of Poland, Lithuania and Estonia are asking for more NATO troops in their areas under the cover of hysterical fears of an imminent Russian invasion.  On the other side of the Baltic shore, Finland’s media have gone into overdrive whipping up war hysteria, providing the government cover in its efforts to invite NATO troops to Finland. In great secrecy and in apparent breach of the constitution, Finland signed with NATO in Septermber 2014 a so-called Host Nation Support accord, which in practice allies Finland with NATO.

At the same time Sweden also gave up its formal neutrality with signing a similar agreement with NATO. The accord spells out directly that the purpose of the agreement is to create the procedures for establishing NATO bases in Finland in order to support a NATO military buildup. Finland’s political leadership, from President Niinisto to Prime Minister Stubb and Defense Minister Haglund, have gradually during the year ramped up their aggressive rhetoric and provocative statements against Russia. A couple of days ago Haglund signed a joint article with four other Nordic (Scandinavian) defense ministers in a Swedish daily advocating the need for the Nordic countries to intensify common defense efforts against “Russian aggression”.

Only public opinion, which is vehemently opposed to NATO membership, has so far kept the Finnish elite from applying for direct membership, but no doubt it is only a question of time before the needed excuse will be invented to override public opposition after the country’s parliamentary elections of April 19. And indeed the purpose of these constant provocations from Finland’s political leadership and the press is precisely to inflame the situation so as to produce the casus belli to go for full NATO membership.

There seems to be no turning back. As a result Finland’s 1,340 km border is now the longest direct border between Russia and NATO, again posing a direct military threat on St. Petersburg and the route all the way to Moscow.

It is clear that the West has started an endgame against Russia and Russia must reply at some point. As more troops will be needed in the North, I do not see how Russia could let Donbass fail.

John Hellevig


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