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Igor Strelkov, a former separatist commander in eastern Ukraine. Sergei Karpukhin / Reuters.
Anna Dolgov, The Moscow Times.
Russian national Igor Strelkov, a former commander of pro-Moscow separatists in eastern Ukraine, has claimed “personal responsibility” for unleashing the conflict across the border, in which 4,300 people have been killed since April.
“I was the one who pulled the firing trigger of this war,” Strelkov said in an interview published Thursday with Russia’s Zavtra newspaper, which espouses imperialist views.
“If our unit hadn’t crossed the border, in the end everything would have fizzled out, like in [the Ukrainian city of] Kharkiv, like in Odessa,” Strelkov, also known as Girkin, was quoted as saying.
“There would have been several dozen killed, burned, detained. And that would have been the end of it. But the flywheel of the war, which is continuing to this day, was spun by our unit. We mixed up all the cards on the table,” he said.
Following Russia’s annexation of Crimea this spring, clashes between pro-Ukrainian and pro-Moscow activists broke out in the cities of Kharkiv and Odessa, with more than 40 people killed in a fire in Odessa in early May.
Since then, the two cities have remained largely peaceful, and most of the fighting between rebels and government forces has been limited to the eastern Luhansk and Donetsk regions.
Strelkov’s interview was published the same day the UN released a report highlighting the involvement of Russian fighters in the eastern Ukraine conflict, which has resulted in the deaths of more than 4,300 people since mid-April.
“The continuing presence of a large amount of sophisticated weaponry, as well as foreign fighters that include servicemen from the Russian Federation, directly affects the human rights situation in the east of Ukraine,” the report said.
Strelkov also told Zavtra that at the beginning of the conflict, Ukrainian separatists and government forces were reluctant to start fighting one another and that the main opposition to the rebels came from Ukraine’s ultra-nationalist militants such as the Right Sector.
“At first, nobody wanted to fight,” he was quoted as saying. “The first two weeks went on under the auspices of the sides trying to convince each other to engage.”
But Strelkov claimed Kiev became emboldened after seeing that Russia was refraining from openly interfering in eastern Ukraine, as it did in Crimea, or from sending in large-scale forces.
He added that the lack of large-scale support from Russia was a major disappointment for the separatists, which lacked the manpower or weapons to combat government forces.
“Initially I assumed that the Crimea scenario would be repeated: Russia would enter,” he told Zavtra. “That was the best scenario. And the population wanted that. Nobody intended to fight for the Luhansk and Donetsk republics. Initially everybody was for Russia.”
Strelkov also gave an account of the degree of Russia’s involvement in the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
At the start of this summer, 90 percent of rebel forces were made up of local residents, Strelkov was quoted as saying. However, by early August, Russian servicemen supposedly on “vacation” from the army had begun to arrive, he said.
According to Strelkov, the assault on the Black Sea town of Mariupol in September, which prompted concerns in Ukraine and the West that Russia has entered the conflict on a large scale, was conducted mostly by the Russian military “vacationers.”
The rebel forces advancing on Mariupol at that time met with little resistance from government troops and “could have been taken without a fight, “but there was an order not to take it,” he was quoted as saying.
While Moscow has repeatedly denied supplying the rebels with weaponry and manpower, Strelkov said the assistance offered to rebels remains significant: “I can’t say that we fully provide for them. But we are really helping them,” he said, noting that half of the rebel army was kitted out with winter clothes sent from Russia.
After Donetsk and Luhansk held “referendums” on their independence from Ukraine in May, separatist leaders appealed to Moscow to accept the territories as Russian regions but Moscow responded with vague statements calling for “dialog” between rebels and Kiev.
Separatist had not contemplated building functional states and had pinned their hopes on being absorbed by Russia, Strelkov said, reasoning that Moscow needed a land connection to Crimea, which it had annexed in March.
“And then, when I understood that Russia was not going to take us in — I associated myself with the resistance — for us that decision was a shock,” Strelkov was quoted as saying.
Strelkov has been living in Russia since early this fall, when he said he was moving to Moscow to protect President Vladimir Putin from enemies and traitors.
While he seems to have fallen out of favor with Russia’s state-run media, having disappeared from their newscasts, he has taken to YouTube and fringe publication to issue an occasional appeal for increased Russian military involvement in eastern Ukraine.
“From the very beginning we started to fight for real — destroying raiding parties of the Right Sector,” Strelkov told Zavtra. “And I take personal responsibility for what is happening there.”
According to a UN report released Thursday, at least 4,317 people had been killed in eastern Ukraine by mid-November, and 9,921 have been wounded. The casualties include nearly 1,000 who have perished since “a tenuous cease-fire” was established earlier this fall.
The Moscow Times.
Pro-Russian militant ride on a tank taken from Ukrainian forces during fighting in August, on their way to test fire in open fields, in the eastern Ukrainian town of Ilovaisk, some 40 kms east of Donetsk, on Nov. 18. © AFP
The Editorial Board, The New York Times.
The crisis in Ukraine has reached an impasse. The cease-fire signed in Minsk, Belarus, in September never really took hold, but at least it provided a cover for efforts to reduce the level of fighting and focus on stabilizing and reforming the Ukrainian economy as a prelude to a serious, long-term search for a resolution of the crisis. Now even the fig leaf of cease-fire is gone. Russian armored vehicles are rolling into eastern Ukraine — disowned, of course, by Moscow.
Gunfire is exchanged constantly in and around Donetsk, and Kiev has basically disowned residents of territories claimed by separatists by cutting most government services, benefits and pensions. And though elections to the Ukrainian Parliament on Oct. 26 brought in a new, pro-Western legislature, Kiev is still far from forming a government or producing a viable program of reforms.
The United States and the European Union have made clear, and correctly so, that they hold President Vladimir Putin of Russia largely responsible for this state of affairs. He was snubbed at the Group of 20 meeting in Brisbane, Australia. Then Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, once the European leader deemed most cautious in relations with Moscow, assailed him for reviving a Cold War atmosphere 25 years after the Berlin Wall fell.
There is no question that by annexing Crimea and arming separatists in eastern Ukraine, Mr. Putin has done great damage to East-West relations — and to his country, which finds itself isolated and in economic trouble. The decision on Monday by the European Union to add more separatist leaders to the list of Mr. Putin’s allies barred from Europe may be largely symbolic, but along with the cold reception in Brisbane, it does let the Russian leader know that the West is not about to let him off the hook.
That said, it is important to acknowledge that officials in Kiev, and more specifically President Petro Poroshenko and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, have responsibilities they must live up to. Ukraine has been plagued by corruption since it became independent, and the current crisis has made it even more imperative for the leaders to form a government and come up with a credible economic and political strategy.
The Ukrainian economy is in terrible shape — the currency has lost almost half its value against the dollar in 2014, the industrial centers of Donetsk and Luhansk are in separatist hands, coal mines have shut down. The International Monetary Fund has provided emergency aid, but the hard fact is that the European Union and the United States cannot be expected to make substantial commitments until Ukraine provides a clear reform plan and priorities for outside investment. Johannes Hahn, the new European Union commissioner for enlargement, is right to insist that the union will not hold a donors’ conference without this.
In addition to an economic strategy, Kiev needs to prepare a plan for loosening central control in a way that might satisfy residents of the eastern provinces. The decision by President Poroshenko to cut government benefits and pensions to residents of areas under the control of Kremlin-backed separatists, though understandable in the circumstances, has left those unable to flee feeling betrayed by Kiev, creating a vacuum for Moscow to fill.
There is no question that ordering painful reforms when a country is already on its knees is asking a lot. That is why it is imperative that Western leaders make clear that they will give Kiev substantial assistance only after it embarks on a serious program of economic and political reform. After all, that was what the Ukrainians who took to the streets in December 2013 fought for.
Volunteers attend a training session at the base of Ukrainian self-defense battalion “Azov” in the southern coastal town of Mariupol on Sept. 3, 2014. Vasily Fedosenko / Reuters
Russia said Thursday that the U.S. would violate international agreements and destabilize the situation if it supplies weapons to Ukrainian forces fighting separatists in the country’s east. 1
A U.S. official suggested Wednesday that Washington should consider providing weapons to Ukraine.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said that sent a “very serious signal.”
“If there is a change of policy [of providing only non-lethal assistance to Ukraine], then we can speak of a serious destabilizing factor that can seriously impact the balance of forces in this region,” Lukashevich told a news conference.
Lukashevich was addressing reporters before a visit to Ukraine by U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden, who was due to arrive in Kiev on Thursday evening.
Lukashevich cautioned against “a major change in policy of the U.S. administration in regard to the conflict” in Ukraine.
“That would be a direct violation of agreements reached, including agreements reached with the participation of the United States,” he said.
Washington backs Kiev in its struggle against the pro-Russian separatists in two eastern regions of Ukraine and has imposed sanctions on Russia over its policies in the crisis.
Moscow supports the separatists but denies it is part of the armed conflict which the United Nations says has killed more than 4,300 people since mid-April.
- But isn’t this exactly what the Russians did? Don’t they know that the same rules apply to them? ↩
Medical volunteers unpack individual first aid kits similar to those used by NATO during a ceremony where they were donated by Kiev’s Mayor Vitaly Klitschko in Kiev Oct. 31. Valentyn Ogirenko / Reuters
Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber, The Moscow Times.
President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman on Tuesday voiced what Russia wants from the West over Ukraine: guarantees that the former Soviet republic will not join NATO, an outcome that political analysts agree was already unlikely in the year-long conflict that has already claimed 4,000 lives.
“We would like to hear that NATO will stop drawing closer to Russia’s borders, that NATO will stop its attempts to disrupt the balance of power,” Dmitry Peskov said in an interview with the BBC. “Unfortunately, we have not heard these assurances, and that forces us to worry, since NATO is gradually moving closer to our borders.”
Putin cited the threat of further NATO expansion as one of the reasons for annexing Crimea from Ukraine in March, a move that infuriated the international community.
Russia’s distrust of NATO is long-standing. Putin has used many platforms to express his stance on NATO expansion, including the 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest.
“A military bloc showing up at our borders would be regarded as a direct security threat,” Putin told reporters at the time. “Assurances that these moves are not aimed against us will not be accepted. National security is not built on promises.”
Ukraine’s current circumstances seem, at first glance, to already constitute a guarantee that it will not join the alliance. The country does not fulfill the alliance’s political, military and economic membership requirements. The current territorial disputes over Crimea and the Donbass also put it at odds with NATO’s charter.
Ukrainian authorities have not kidded themselves about the prospect of membership, recognizing that the country does not fulfill the organization’s criteria and that the alliance would not be willing to accept Ukraine into its fold.
“Even if we sent a request to join NATO, the bloc itself would not be ready for this,” Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko told Bild, a German daily newspaper, on Monday. “Only when we implement reforms in Ukraine and meet the criteria will we be able to ask the population whether they want to join the alliance.”
Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty recognizes an armed attack on a member as an an assault on all of them. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Tuesday that Russia was orchestrating a military buildup on its border with Ukraine, as well as on Ukrainian territory, after the alliance released satellite images it said showed Russian forces engaging in military operations on Ukrainian territory earlier this year. Had Ukraine been a member of the organization, NATO would have had to go beyond mere statements.
But circumstantial guarantees that Ukraine will not join NATO in any foreseeable future are insufficient for Russia, pundits told The Moscow Times.
“Russia feels that it has been lied to by the West in many instances,” said Alexei Makarkin, deputy director of the Moscow-based Center for Political Technologies think tank. “It doesn’t want this to happen again, especially on a sensitive issue it said it was once cheated on: NATO eastward expansion. I assume Russia would request an official document with binding obligations.”
Peskov could not be reached Wednesday for clarification of the nature of the guarantee Russia had requested.
Russian authorities have claimed it was agreed during German reunification negotiations in 1990 Russia that NATO would not expand eastward. NATO denies that there was any such agreement and released a statement in April saying that “no evidence to back up Russia’s claims has ever been produced.” In the last 15 years, 12 European countries — including the three Baltic former Soviet republics — have joined the alliance.
Russian pundits agreed it was highly unlikely that Russia would obtain a written guarantee from the West that Ukraine would not join the alliance.
“Russia doesn’t trust NATO, and NATO doesn’t trust Russia,” political scientist Vladimir Yevseyev said. “Nobody trusts anyone else right now. This type of guarantee would increase mutual trust and predictability in these tense circumstances. I would view this as a positive development.”
NATO enlargement is only one of the issues Russia has used to justify its stance on Ukraine, and analysts said a Western guarantee on keeping Ukraine out of the alliance would have no effect on other lingering issues.
“A guarantee on Ukraine not joining NATO would not be enough,” Makarkin said. “It will not improve the situation in the country, nor ease tensions. There are a series of other demands Russia has made of the West regarding Ukraine, including the adoption of a special status for the east of the country. These other issues will not change regardless of any official guarantee against Ukraine joining NATO.”