In Background, Feature Articles, Ukraine

Which Ukraine? By Sophie Pinkham, The New Yorker magazine, Feb. 12, 2015

Earlier this month, Lina Yaroslavska, who works at a non-governmental organization in Lviv, in Western Ukraine, wrote on Facebook that she was full of fear after her ex-husband was drafted in the latest wave of mobilization for the conflict in the country’s eastern regions. “He said he was ready to defend Ukraine. I have a lot of questions about who is defending whom,” Yaroslavska wrote. “For me, this seems like a kind of sacrifice, one in which the Church also participates, by giving its blessing: those who have power over the people pluck up guys, and, whether or not you want to, whether or not you can, you’re sent to this dragon to be devoured.”

Social Nationalist Assembly extremists, photo by Valentyn Ogirenko, Reuters, featured in The New Yorker article

Social Nationalist Assembly extremists, photo by Valentyn Ogirenko, Reuters, featured in The New Yorker article

With a rapidly increasing number of casualties in the conflict that began in the aftermath of the Maidan revolution, last winter, more and more Ukrainian women are thinking about this dragon. (On Thursday morning, French, German, Russian, and Ukrainian leaders announced a new ceasefire agreement; it remains to be seen whether both sides will abide by it. The last ceasefire, in September, proved largely ineffective.) In January, I met up with an old acquaintance, Lena K., at a café in Kiev, across the street from her office. She told me straight off that the past year had almost killed her. First, there were the Maidan protests, in which she was intensively involved, coördinating medical aid for the wounded protesters. Then, in August, her husband, the father of their young daughter, had been drafted. Lena didn’t want him to go, and she knew that you could buy your way out of the draft; this was Ukraine, after all, one of the most corrupt countries in the world. She’d heard rumors that even some military personnel had managed to escape mobilization. But Lena’s husband, who had no real military training, only some theoretical knowledge of artillery, said that he wanted to defend his country. The Ukrainian Army provides almost no equipment to its conscripts, so Lena and her husband scrambled to purchase several thousand dollars’ worth of supplies—a good helmet, boots, camouflage, a bulletproof vest, sleeping bags, hemostatic bandages—and to procure prescription painkillers. After three weeks of training, her husband was sent to Donbass. He has now been on duty for four months, without any break or hope of rotation.

Lena and her husband were lucky to have the money and connections to get the necessary equipment and supplies; but they couldn’t do anything about the broader problems of lack of training or experience in the armed forces. There’s still plenty of patriotism and bluster, but many Ukrainians are frightened, furious, and desperate for the yearlong conflict with the Russia-backed separatists to end. In Kiev, I talked with a number of people who were worried about being drafted in the next wave of mobilization, which has been accompanied by a new crackdown on draft dodgers. “I don’t want to be cannon fodder,” an acquaintance told me, his voice shrill with anxiety. People have started discussing legal arguments that reject the legitimacy of the draft on the grounds that Ukraine has not declared war.

But dissent is not welcome in public forums; those who criticize the war effort are likely to be accused of betraying their country. Some Ukrainians, and Ukraine supporters, take any criticism of the conflict to be Russian propaganda, no matter how trustworthy the source. And the stakes are getting higher. On February 8th, Ruslan Kotsaba, a Western Ukrainian journalist who posted a video criticizing the draft and the war, was detained by the Ukrainian Security Service on suspicion of treason. (The Security Service has denied that the arrest was made because of the video, but have not provided any further explanation.) In the video, Kotsaba says, “It would be better for me to spend two to five years”—the sentence for noncompliance with the draft—“in prison than to go into a civil war, to kill or help kill my countrymen in the east. . . . I reject this draft, and I call on all sensible people to reject it.” In a divided country in which every government institution has been hollowed out by corruption, and where a Ministry of Information Policy was formed to coördinate the “information war” with Russia, the air is clouded with conspiracy theories. In January, the filmmaker Oleksandr Techinskiy, who made the documentary “All Things Ablaze,” about the Maidan protests, told me, “The closer you get, the less you understand.”

Meanwhile in Washington a growing number of powerful voices are advocating for “lethal aid” to Ukraine. On February 2nd, the Atlantic Council, the Brookings Institution, and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs released a joint report, written by a group of former senior officials from the U.S. government, including Strobe Talbott, calling for the provision to Ukraine of three billion dollars in military aid, including “lethal defensive arms.”

Many Western arguments in favor of aid to Ukraine try to draw a clear division between the old Ukrainian government and the one that came to power after the revolution, a year ago. “The new Ukraine seeks to become the opposite of the old Ukraine, which was demoralized and riddled with corruption,” George Soros (for whose foundation I once worked) and Bernard-Henri Lévy wrote in the New York Times last month. “The new Ukraine, however, faces a potent challenge from the old Ukraine,” which “is solidly entrenched in a state bureaucracy that has worked hand in hand with a business oligarchy.” But what exactly do they mean by “the new Ukraine?” Do they mean its president, Petro Poroshenko, an oligarch who made his fortune in the world of post-Soviet business, in which corruption is almost mandatory? Or its Prime Minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who spent years as a successful politician in the old Ukraine?

The Maidan revolution has had little success in transforming the way in which the government conducts its business—slowly, opaquely, incompetently, and with plenty of what Levy and Soros politely refer to as “leakages.” Poroshenko, who owns one of the largest confectionary manufacturers in the country, earning him the nickname “the chocolate king,” was elected in 2014 by terrified citizens who hoped that he could use his experience and connections to stop further aggression from Russia. Last winter, as separatism gained momentum, the oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, who is worth an estimated $1.6 billion and has made deals under every Ukrainian Administration for the past two decades, was appointed governor of Dnipropetrovsk (on the border of the conflict-torn Donetsk region), where he funded the Dnipro Battalion, a paramilitary organization.

There is one way the new Ukraine differs dramatically from the old Ukraine, and that is in the emergence of paramilitary battalions funded by oligarchs, political parties, and private donations. These bands of half-trained volunteer warriors have done much of the fighting in the current conflict, operating largely independently of the government, and often without adequate coördination. While both the Ukrainian government and citizens often treat these volunteers as heroes, there are signs that they may pose a risk of armed revolt. This summer, members of the Azov Battalion, which has an unsettling fondness for Nazi symbols, told the Guardian that once the war in the east was over, they’d “bring the fight to Kiev,” and that they wanted to install a strong military leader. They didn’t think it would be very hard. “What are the police going to do?” one Azov fighter said. “They could not do anything against the peaceful protesters on Maidan; they are hardly going to withstand armed fighting units.”

In November, Ukraine incorporated the volunteer battalions into the National Guard, legalizing them, bringing them under at least nominal control, and providing them with additional arms. The fighting branch of the Right Sector—a far-right nationalist party that has only one representative, Dmytro Yarosh, in Parliament, but which has played an outsized role in the current conflict—was not incorporated into the National Guard, and there are concerns about the fact that its actions are technically illegal. A video posted to YouTube in October shows two Right Sector fighters shooting at an unseen enemy. Between volleys, they speak about how they prefer Right Sector to other battalions because it’s easy to join and because everyone is equal. But they have concerns. “The Security Service already catches us one by one and keeps interrogating us. We’re considered a criminal group,” one says. “When the war is over, we’ll still have our weapons, right? Right.” Yarosh has made efforts to pass legislation that would legalize Right Sector’s military activities, but he rejects the possibility of integrating its fighters into government forces. He also wants the government to help arm the Right Sector battalion; at present, they fight with whatever weapons they can find, including those captured in battle.

In January, I visited a volunteer war-logistics center in Dnipropetrovsk. The center was situated in the basement of government’s House of Scholars—a couple rooms with a small kitchen. The basement flooded periodically, so the supplies—winter boots, coats, helmets, and homemade, though very professional-looking, bulletproof vests—were stored on raised shelves. There were piles of brightly colored single-use boxer shorts, many in floral or psychedelic patterns, sewn by Swedish women, “the Swedish battalion,” from scrap material. Volunteers were also sewing white covers for helmets and white robes that soldiers could wear over their camouflage, so that they could go unseen on snowy fields. A large red-and-black Right Sector flag hung on the wall.

Roman Kovtun, a small, laconic man in his thirties, told me about the operation. A former mechanic, he was one of about a hundred volunteers working at the center, which, though housed in a government building, relied entirely on donated supplies. Kovtun and Natasha Naumenko, a jovial, matter-of-fact woman in a checkered scarf, showed me the food packs that volunteers made for “anyone fighting for the motherland,” whether in the Ukrainian Army or in paramilitary groups: nuts with ginger, honey, and lemon; dried borsht; salo, famous Ukrainian cured lard with lots of garlic. There were stacks of with mesh bags of beets and potatoes, and countless jars of preserves. Many of the donations were less obviously useful. One babushka had donated a large box of raspberry branches that were to be used to stir tea to ward off illness. Someone else had donated an orange-and-white electric razor that looked like it had been bought in the nineteen-seventies, still in its pleather case. Another had contributed the fourth volume of the collected works of Robert Louis Stevenson with a long, handwritten letter wishing the soldiers victory and expressing the hope that the book would bring them comfort. One woman, Naumenko said, had offered to sing songs to the soldiers. She had three: “New York, New York,” something by Whitney Houston, and an aria from the operetta “The Circus Princess.” People gave what they could.

Kovtun and Naumenko showed me the medical kits they had made, based on the model of those used by NATO. The NATO kits cost a hundred euros apiece, but the volunteers had been able to assemble theirs at a cost of only three hundred hryvnia (at the time roughly seventeen euros). Pharmacies were donating prescription-only medications without prescriptions, since no official process had been established to procure medications for the kits. Kovtun said that the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense had decided on a standard medical kit in the nineteen-seventies and no one had updated it since.

“This center has only enough supplies for fifty people,” he said in a bitter, muted tone. “It’s just a drop in the bucket. The Army is still on the level it was on during the Afghan war,” in the nineteen-eighties. “There isn’t enough of anything, and everything’s getting figured out along the way. No one knew, at first, except maybe the occasional medic, what Celox was, and why it’s needed to stop the bleeding on a torn-off leg.” (Celox is a brand of hemostatic gauze.) “No one knew anything about night-vision goggles. Now they know. But it’s all trial and error. People buy boots, for instance, and then find out they’re fine for a checkpoint but not for running in the snow. There was no coördination of donations—people bought the wrong things or the wrong quantities. You’d end up with a houseful of buckwheat at a checkpoint.”

Kovtun offered to show me what the Ministry of Defense had provided for the soldiers. His face brightened with anger as he searched through a heap of clothing.

“Here’s one,” he said, bringing over a jacket. The lining was in tatters; he explained that it had been eaten by mice. Then he showed me a helmet that looked like a historical artifact, dented and riddled with bullet holes. The real proof of its age, he said, was that the holes had been made by a kind of bullet that hadn’t been used in decades.

After we left, the people who’d agreed to show me around—Vitaliy Yusyuk, a longtime acquaintance who had volunteered for the Dnipro-1 Battalion this past summer, and Marina Davydova, a local journalist active in the volunteer effort—told me that they worried about what would happen when the volunteers, who received almost no government funds, ran out of money. Military aid went to the Ministry of Defense, they said, and much of it was stolen; of a summer shipment of two thousand bulletproof vests five hundred had gone missing; another shipment of supplies had disappeared entirely. In September, military support groups complained to President Poroshenko that the Kiev City 12th Battalion had been set up purely in order to steal. In November, the military prosecutor’s office began investigating Ministry of Defense officials for corruption. And then, in early January, Yuriy Biryukov, an adviser to the President and to the Ministry of Defense, claimed that between twenty and twenty-five per cent of money allocated to the Ministry of Defense was stolen, and that the military prosecutor’s office was in a state of “total corruption.” Biryukov began his involvement in the conflict as a leader of the volunteer effort; now the government has tasked him with using a team to reduce corruption in the Ministry of Defense.

The Western press often portrays Ukraine’s volunteer-led war effort as a feel-good story of solidarity and ingenuity. But behind this volunteerism is a state whose institutions are so dysfunctional that they cause more harm than good. The state’s failures could have dangerous consequences. The Maidan movement, Poroshenko, and those in favor of arming Ukraine have referred, again and again, to Ukraine’s commitment to “European values.” But a country full of privately funded battalions looks more like pre-modern Europe than like a potential E.U. member.

Meanwhile, those in favor of sending “lethal aid” to Ukraine have failed to mention that the Ukrainian government, as well as the separatists, have used weapons and taken measures that have led to the death of many civilians. With Russia’s support, the separatists have repeatedly used unguided rockets and cluster munitions, killing and wounding many civilians and destroying or damaging residential buildings, hospitals, and schools. But, according to Human Rights Watch, Ukrainian government forces have also used such weapons in populated areas, leading, almost inevitably, to civilian casualties. The Ukrainian government’s efforts to evacuate civilians, many of whom are begging for help, have been slow and inadequate, and non-governmental organizations have provided most of the assistance to the million or so Ukrainians who have been displaced by the conflict. The government recently blockaded Donetsk and Luhansk, leaving civilians in the east without access to money, medicine, or food; even humanitarian-aid deliveries have been blocked. Hospitals in some Ukrainian-held areas of Donetsk and Luhansk provinces are working without government funds or supplies. Scores of wounded Ukrainian soldiers are left to rely on the kindness of volunteers.

Sophie Pinkham, a doctoral student in Columbia University’s Slavic department, is writing a book about living in Ukraine.


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