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Deconstructing the Ukraine War: The Players and Their Interests

As ominous reports of increased violations of the Minsk 2.0 ceasefire continue to surface and the Kiev government paves the way for martial law, the winds of war appear to be picking up again. It seems like a good time to take a look at the parties in the Ukraine war, their interests and what may be expected in the future

This article originally appeared at OpEdNews

As ominous reports of increased violations of the Minsk 2.0 ceasefire continue to surface and the Kiev government paves the way for martial law, the winds of war appear to be picking up again. Russia's Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, has even gone so far as to publicly state, without providing details, that "someone in the European Union" is sabotaging the ceasefire.

<figcaption>Euromaidan in Kiev in December 2013 | Photo: Gleb Garanich, Reuters</figcaption>
Euromaidan in Kiev in December 2013 | Photo: Gleb Garanich, Reuters

Against this backdrop, the EU-Ukraine Summit last week hailed a neoliberal free trade agreement set to take effect on January 1, 2016, but it was also made clear that any EU membership aspirations for Ukraine are still a distant dream, rendering Ukraine's relationship with the EU to be a rather lopsided one in terms of who benefits and who suffers.

It seems like a good time to take a look at the parties in the Ukraine war, their interests and what may be expected in the future.

The Kiev Government - How it Came to Power and the Nature of its Rule

The European Union, led by Germany, tried to pressure Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich to sign an Association agreement. Upon review of how the agreement would actually affect his country economically - already the poorest in Europe - including austerity measures, renunciation of their significant trade with Russia and the supplanting of Ukraine's native oligarchs, Yanukovich balked and opted to go with a Russian deal comprised of a $15 billion loan and reduced gas rates. As it turns out, the West was not in fact offering Ukraine free trade or even visa-free travel but a self-serving deal that had little to no benefit to Ukraine. Most leaders in Yanukovich's place would have done the same.

Throughout the period of negotiating this association agreement, Russia requested three way talks to avert problems. Of course, Russia wanted to protect its own economic and trade interests, but it also had an interest in preventing friction or instability on its border. However, they were basically told by the West to drop dead.

According to an independent investigation by Germany's ARD TV into the events surrounding the ouster of the democratically elected president, specifically the violence on the Maidan, found that sniper shots fired on February 20th, which resulted in almost 100 deaths, came primarily from buildings controlled by the Maidan protesters, including members of Right Sector. A more in-depth forensic investigation was conducted by Ukrainian-Canadian academic Ivan Katchanovski, PhD. His conclusions supported the ARD report. This is all consistent with Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet's account to then European High Commissioner Catherine Ashton in an intercepted phone call posted to YouTube on February 26, 2014, wherein he stated that his sources, including Dr. Olga Bolgomets - who was an ardent supporter of the original Maidan protests - reported forensic evidence indicating that the snipers were Maidan protesters. Paet also reported that members of the Ukrainian parliament had been beaten and threatened during the period in question.

Prior to the sniper violence and the ouster of Yanukovich, State Department official Victoria Nuland and US ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt were caught planning the imminent coup in an intercepted phone call posted on February 6th wherein they are discussing how to "glue this thing" and who will be the best person to lead a post-Yanukovich Ukraine, declaring "Yats is the guy." Nuland also famously disparaged the EU's less aggressive approach to engineering a zero-sum position for Ukraine with respect to its relations with the West and Russia.

The Kiev government that has come after the overthrow of the corrupt but democratically elected Yanukovich has, by all reasonable measures, overseen a degeneration of the country into something far more sinister. Neo-Nazis were given posts in the Interior and Education Ministries, were elected to the Rada in small numbers but are also members of and have significant influence in other parliamentary parties that won larger percentages. These Neo-Nazis had allegedly threatened the Kiev government in the past with a coup if it didn't placate their desires. A ministry of truth has been established, creating an atmosphere that allows for the recent killing spree of journalists and opposition politicians, to which the head of the SBU responded by saying, "I think that at the present time, when a war practically going on, "Ukrainophobes," if they don't shut their mouths, should at least stop their rhetoric." World War II era Nazi collaborator, Stepan Bandera, involved in the massacre of tens of thousands of Jews and Poles in Western Ukraine, has become an openly celebrated hero. A government that has such elements will not be inclined to reach a political compromise with the rebels in the southeast, although the Kiev government, as discussed in more detail below, is obligated by the Minsk 2.0 agreement to do so.

Furthermore, Ukraine's economy has imploded with S&P predicting default as "virtually inevitable," a currency that has devalued by 40% in 2015 alone and an inflation rate of 272%. The Kiev government has no money and has had to rely on EU and IMF loans - with the latter institution actually breaking its own rules about lending to a nation conducting war.

The Novorossiyan Rebels

The West has typically characterized the rebels in the southeast of Ukraine as puppets of Russia with no legitimate grievances or indigenous support. However, American Russia scholar Nicolai Petro, who spent a year in Ukraine and was in country when the upheaval occurred, has citedsociological surveys of Donbas residents from March, April and May of 2014 in which the results show that majorities considered the Right Sector to be dangerous and influential and the Maidan protests to be illegal and representing "an armed overthrow of the government, organized by the opposition, with the assistance of the West."

Independent video journalist Patrick Lancaster, who has been reporting from the Donbas since spring of 2014, stated that most of the fighters he has encountered on both sides are Ukrainian.

British Russia scholar Paul Robinson has estimated that 90% of the fighters in the Donbas are Ukrainian. Furthermore, he states that the original rebellion constituted regular citizens who took control of local government buildings in response to the startling events coming out of post-coup Kiev where laws were introduced seeking to delegitimize the Russian language, neo-Nazis were given posts in the Interior and Education departments and many acts of violence were committed against members of the Communist Party and the Party of Regions.

When Robinson asked a Maidan protester why this political protest had led to a more violent and divisive result than the Orange Revolution in 2004, the protester admitted that this time they didn't care what the Crimeans or the residents of the Donbas wanted. So the divisiveness was not initiated by Russia or the ethnic Russian population of Ukraine, but by a portion of the Maidan protesters who basically believed a whole segment of their country should take a flying leap.

Although Russia has provided some arms and allowed Russian volunteers to cross the border freely, Robinson points out that Moscow has actually had a moderating influence on the rebels by facilitating the replacement of the original military leaders (Igor Strelkov and Alexander Borodai) that supported what was perceived as a quixotic quest for independence. An independent Donbas that would be economically unviable and would provide no counterweight to a hostile and extremist government in Kiev is not in Moscow's interests.

Vladimir Putin: Who is He and What Does He Want?

This brings us to the figure in the Kremlin who has become larger than life on the world stage. Whether vilified or admired, Russian president Vladimir Putin now receives more attention than just about any other person on the planet. In the West, there has been a demonization campaign in the media against Putin that has waxed and waned in intensity over the years. However, the campaign has gone into overdrive since the Ukraine crisis and subsequent civil war.

One level of demonization has been to suggest that Putin is a cold-blooded KGB killer and the equivalent of a mafia don who personally puts out hits on Russian dissidents like journalist Anna Politkovskya and intelligence agent Aleksandr Litvinenko.

According to a diplomatic cable released by Wikileaks, from US Ambassador Bill Burns to Washington regarding the alleged assassination of Litvinenko in 2006, there was a wide variety of speculative opinion in Russia of who was responsible, but it was agreed that there was no evidence supporting any of the theories, including those pointing the finger at Putin. Former BBC Moscow correspondent, Angus Roxburgh, in his political biography of Putin, interviewed Martin Sixsmith who led an investigation into Litvinenko's death, in which he concluded that there was no evidence that Putin was behind it. To this day, the British government has refused to release Litvinenko's autopsy report.

The same diplomatic cable from Burns similarly stated that there was no evidence that Putin was behind journalist Politkovskya's murder either. The publishers of Novaya Gazeta, the newspaper that Politkovskya wrote for, believe the Chechen leadership was behind her murder, not the Russian government.

This has not stopped the western media from reviving these claims in the midst of the Ukraine crisis, including the commencement of a farcical court proceeding in Britain regarding the Litvinenko murder in which a critical piece of forensic evidence (the autopsy report) is still withheld. Hence, this is nothing more than intrigue and innuendo to further poison the western public's mind about both Putin and Russia.

The same dynamic has played out with the murder of Boris Nemtsov whom Putin had no motivation for wanting to eliminate as he was no plausible threat with only a 1% approval rating among the Russian people. Again, the western media has only presented innuendo in its implicit accusations against Putin. And when the innuendo doesn't hold up, they simply stop talking about it. If Putin had thought Nemtsov was a real threat or troublemaker he likely would have followed his usual pattern of finessing the law and having him jailed.

The second level of demonization has been to characterize Putin as personally corrupt, accusing him of holding billions of dollars he systematically ripped off from the Russian people as far back as his days in the St. Petersburg mayor's office in secret bank accounts, owning an opulent Spanish villa and perhaps even stealing lollipops from disabled children.

This has culminated in a recent Frontline program called "Putin's Way" in which a mishmash of unverified claims and discredited conspiracy theories were trotted out in a slick propaganda piece trying to pass itself off as journalism. Only one academic on Russia was interviewed who was allowed to frame the narrative on Putin's "corruption." This academic's tendentious claims were not challenged by other academic and journalistic experts who have done more sober, balanced and in depth research on Russia and Putin. There were plenty of people Frontline could have talked to that would have provided a very different account of Putin's character while working as deputy mayor of St. Petersburg, including many residents of the city who have stated that Putin was the only bureaucrat during that period that did not charge bribes for registering their businesses, which contributed to their decision to vote for him in the 2000 presidential election. It is perhaps best summed up by one of Putin's academic political biographers, Allen Lynch:

For much of this time, given (mayor Anatoliy) Sobchak's frequent and protracted absences and his preoccupation with national affairs, Putin assumed the functions of acting mayor. He supervised the drafting and implementation of countless international business deals and policy reforms. These transactions did not always go according to plan, and no doubt many profited handsomely from Putin's admitted inexperience in these matters. During his attempt to establish municipal oversight over a series of casinos, for example, the city was cheated. In another case, the city was fleeced for $120 million for two shipments of cooking oil. Although during this period his mother bought a choice apartment at an exceptionally low price at a city auction, Putin didn't seem to enrich himself personally. In the one specific public charge of corruption that was brought against him, Putin sued in court for slander and won"
Putin was not corrupt, at least not in the conventional, venal sense. His modest and frankly unfashionable attire bespoke a seeming indifference to personal luxury. While as deputy mayor, he had acquired the use of the summer dacha of the former East German consulate and even installed a sauna unit there, but when the house burned down in the summer of 1996, his $5,000 life's savings burned with it. To have accumulated only $5,000 in five years as deputy mayor of Russia's second largest city and largest port, when hundreds of less well-placed Russians were enriching themselves on government pickings, implies something other than pecuniary motives behind Putin's activities.

As for the Spanish villa that, according to British tabloids, Putin supposedly plans to retire to so he can grow special grapes he can turn into wildly profitable wines, his political nemesis Alexei Navalny discovered that the villa is actually owned by the daughter of a member of the Russian parliament, not Putin.

Last summer, President Obama, Secretary of State Kerry and numerous commentators saturated the mass media with groundless accusations that Putin was responsible for the shoot down of MH17, along with constant claims that Russia had invaded Ukraine - again, without substantive evidence.

So why is so much energy being put into demonizing Russia's leader - a tactic that historians and Russia scholars have noted never occurred during the height of the Cold War?

As investigative journalist Robert Parry's sources in the White House have revealed, the massive propaganda instruments of western corporate media are the only real leverage they have in the crisis they helped to engineer:

In the context of Ukraine, I asked one senior administration official about this behavior and he responded that Russia held most of the advantages there by nature of proximity and history but that one advantage the United States wielded was "information warfare" - and it made no sense to surrender that edge by withdrawing accusations that had put Russian President Vladimir Putin on the defensive.

Indeed, many pundits in the media have bloviated about Putin's supposed crimes and imperial ambitions or have lamented that they can't figure out what the mysterious Russian president wants. This, however, indicates dishonesty or laziness. In countless speeches and interactions with western leaders over the course of his presidency, Putin has reiterated that he wants Russia to be accepted by the west or at least for its interests to be taken into account. Judging by his actual past actions, not the distortions and lies that have been put in their stead by western politicians and pundits, he wants stability, friendly or benign neighbors and reciprocal economic exchange.

Putin wants these things because he believes they will create the environment most conducive to increasing Russians' security and standard of living - two values that are higher on his list of priorities than political democracy, though the latter is not completely rejected out of hand either as Russia is more democratic than it has been in its 1,000 year history of authoritarian rule, except for Gorbachev's brief period of leadership. With Putin's approval ratings never having dipped below the 60s, Russians seem to agree with his priorities.

This brings us to the question of how to resolve the Ukrainian civil war and the larger geopolitical tensions they embody. Instability and possible membership in NATO on his western border does not serve Putin's objectives for Russia. Due to Ukraine's internal cultural divisions, it is imperative for both Ukraine's long term stability and Russia's security that Ukraine serve as a neutral buffer state with decentralized political control, the opportunity to benefit economically from both Russia and Europe and no NATO membership.

The second and third requirements are interrelated as the EU attempted to force Ukrainian president Yanukovich to accede to an association agreement that not only would have created the economic problems already outlined, but would have also required Ukraine to align its military and security policies with NATO as reflected in the language of the association agreement itself as well as the 2007 Treaty of Lisbon requiring the same of all incoming EU members. This posed a major security dilemma for Russia as Putin, Lavrov and other Russian officials had warned American leaders and diplomats over the years that it would.

Unlike the unique situation in Crimea, Putin has shown no interest in absorbing the Donbas into the Russian Federation. Setting aside the likely political repercussions and thornier issues of international law, if Putin were to absorb the Donbas, there would be no viable counterweight to an extremist government in Kiev that would be free to pursue NATO membership.

The US and EU

If German Chancellor Merkel and French President Hollande's initiative with Minsk 2.0 in early February was any indication, Europe seemed to be finally asserting some independence on behalf of its own interests as Kiev's military and economy continued to disintegrate while Washington descended further into hubristic madness with threatened weapons deliveries.

With the town of Debaltseve, which bridges the rebel areas of the Donetsk People's Republic (DPR) and the Lugansk People's Republic (LPR), now in the hands of the rebels and the ceasefire appearing to largely hold until recently, it is important to note that the Minsk 2.0 agreement (which did not define the final demarcation line) is not likely to resolve the crisis but did represent an important turning point in the political equation.

In addition to the fact that Merkel and Hollande approached Moscow for another round of diplomacy and not the other way around, there were significant political concessions made verbally by Merkel during the negotiations as reported in an in depth article in Der Spiegel and expoundedupon by analyst and international law expert Alexander Mercouris:

It was almost certainly in the talks with Putin in Moscow, where the Ukrainians were not present, that the broad outline of what was formally decided in Minsk was actually agreed. Merkel then flew to Washington to brief Obama and obtain his consent. Poroshenko was then presented in Minsk with what had previously been agreed, leaving him scope only to quibble over the technical details in a way that it is in Merkel's interests to highlight"
Der Spiegel claims Merkel was able to extract one concession from Putin. Der Spiegel claims Putin agreed the forthcoming elections in the rebel regions will be limited to areas the rebel militia was to control in accordance with a ceasefire line agreed on 19th September 2014, and would not take place in territories the rebel militia has captured since the failure of the Ukrainian government's offensive in January.
If Der Spiegel is right about this then this must have been agreed verbally because there is nothing in the text of the agreements that came out of Minsk that refers to it. Der Spiegel probably is right, because the remainder of the article shows a great deal more was agreed verbally by Putin and Merkel than appears in writing".
Ukraine is obliged to pass a law before the end of March granting the rebel regions in the Donbass special status within Ukraine. Ukraine is obliged to enact a new Constitution before the end of the year. As I have previously said, this provides a time line for the settlement of the conflict that did not exist previously.
Far more important, Der Spiegel says that Ukraine is obliged to agree with the rebels the terms of the new law for the special status of their regions within Ukraine and is also obliged to agree the provisions of the new Constitution with them as well".
Even more importantly, Der Spiegel says the two rebel regions are to have a veto over Ukraine's future political orientation, including its joining either NATO or the EU. In Der Spiegel's words:
"Russia has likely already achieved its minimum goal, that of preventing Ukraine from joining NATO or the European Union.
"The deal agreed to in Minsk includes a kind of veto right for separatist areas in eastern Ukraine on important fundamental issues.
"That right would apply to membership in military alliances and to membership in economic blocks such as the EU or Putin's Eurasian Economic Union."
These provisions do not appear in writing in the Minsk agreements. If they exist (which, given that the Der Spiegel article is sourced from Merkel's office, they surely do) they must have been agreed verbally by Putin and Merkel, almost certainly during the talks in Moscow that preceded the ones in Minsk.
There would have been no point in asking Poroshenko to sign a document that contained these provisions since for political reasons he could never have signed it. However the Russians have obtained confirmation in writing that they may control Ukraine's border until the new Constitution is agreed. This gives them a powerful tool which they can use to enforce terms they dictated in Moscow and Minsk, even those that were only agreed verbally with Merkel, if or rather when the Ukrainians try to back out of them".
Der Spiegel calls the Minsk agreements a success for Merkel. It is difficult to see why. If implemented they mean the end of the West's and the EU's Ukraine project.

As also reported in the Der Spiegel article, Putin showed his willingness, as he has in the past, to apply pressure to the rebel leadership to agree to diplomatic compromises. However, there has been no evidence throughout the Ukraine crisis that the West is willing to apply reciprocal pressure on Kiev, which has broken every previous agreement since February of 2014. Unless the West forces Kiev to face reality, the pattern will continue in which the war smolders then flares up again until the Kiev regime collapses from its own incompetence and delusions.

There have been several events after the signing of Minsk 2.0 on February 12th that do not bode well. Svoboda storm trooper Andriy Parubiy was in Washington requesting more weapons for Kiev during the week of February 25. The U.S. has sent troops to Ukraine this month to train the Ukrainian national guard. Ukraine's Interior Ministry admitted the training could include the vicious neo-Nazi Azov battalion, although a US Embassy representative denied that. The Right Sector has also just been officially incorporated into the Ukrainian Army under its neo-Nazi leader Dmytro Yarosh who is now Ukraine's Chief of General Staff. Sending American troops to Ukraine would appear to be a violation of the Minsk 2.0 agreement which requires the removal of all foreign fighters and mercenaries from Ukraine.

But perhaps the most disturbing development was the Kiev parliament's demand in mid-March that the rebels effectively surrender and allow Kiev to organize elections before any federalization would occur. The Minsk agreement reflected no such requirement from the rebels. Instead, Kiev was supposed to begin negotiating with representatives of the rebel republics toward a special status. As DPR official Denis Pushilin stated, "Chancellor Merkel and President Hollande have declared they would guarantee that Ukraine would carryout Minsk 2.0. Therefore, they now have to bring Poroshenko to heel as by his actions he is ripping up the Minsk agreements."

Meanwhile, Germany is reportedly disgusted with shenanigans by American hawks like NATO commander Philip Breedlove and Victoria Nuland that thwart work toward negotiating a settlement. As a subsequent Der Spiegel article detailed, Breedlove's constant assertions of Russia's military incursions, which are contradicted by Germany's intelligence sources (as well as France's), are particularly troubling:

Sources in the Chancellery have referred to Breedlove's comments as "dangerous propaganda."
It is the tone of Breedlove's announcements that makes Berlin uneasy. False claims and exaggerated accounts, warned a top German official during a recent meeting on Ukraine, have put NATO - and, by extension, the entire West - in danger of losing its credibility.
Berlin sources also say that it has become conspicuous that Breedlove's controversial statements are often made just as a step forward has been made in the difficult negotiations aimed at a political solution. Berlin sources say that Germany should be able to depend on its allies to support its efforts at peace.

Sources in Washington acknowledge that Breedlove's comments are cleared ahead of time with both the White House and the Pentagon.

The German media also exposed how Victoria Nuland, during secret meetings on the sidelines of the Munch Security Conference in early February, pumped up her colleagues on how to "fight against the Europeans, fight against them rhetorically" in order to facilitate the arming of Kiev. This is apparently where Breedlove and other officials were coached by Nuland on their warmongering propaganda, "While talking to the Europeans this weekend, you need to make the case that Russia is putting in more and more offensive stuff while we want to help the Ukrainians defend against these systems. It is defensive in nature although some of it has lethality."

Although Merkel seems alarmed by the potential for an escalating war in Europe, she still appears to be doing the bidding of Washington as she reportedly has made vigorous attempts to persuade China to halt its growing political and economic alliance with Russia. It is unclear why this would be in Germany's long-term interests as an eventual economic partnership among China, Russia and Germany would represent a mutually beneficial Eurasian powerhouse - something that Washington seeks to prevent at virtually all costs as the Brzezinski- and Wolfowitz-influenced politicians at the helm are making clear.

The major question remains: what will Europe, particularly Germany, do next? Will they continue their past role enabling Washington to act like a bull in a china shop in their backyard or will they finally recognize where their true interests lie and act accordingly?

Natylie Baldwin is co-author of Ukraine: Zbig's Grand Chessboard & How the West Was Checkmated, available from Tayen Lane Publishing. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in various publications including Sun Monthly, Dissident Voice, Energy Bulletin, Newtopia Magazine, The Common Line, New York Journal of Books and The Lakeshore. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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