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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.
Mikhail Gorbachev, first and last president of the Soviet Union, is defiant at 83 over his role in the breakup of the Soviet Union and its ongoing fallout. Pascal Dumont / MT
Ivan Nechepurenko, The Moscow Times.
Many people who send letters to the first and last president of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, still write on the envelope: “To the Secretary General of the Communist Party, Kremlin.” The Russian postal service is used to this and redirects the mail to the Gorbachev Foundation, headquartered in a modern building about seven kilometers north of the Kremlin.
Some of those letters are harshly critical of Gorbachev, who is regarded as a traitor by many Russians who regret the demise of the Soviet Union and the shocking economic transformation that followed. Some of the more vitriolic missives even encourage him to commit suicide. But at 83, Gorbachev is defiant and determined.
“I live and will continue to live according to my conscience and principles. Everyone else can go crazy,” he told The Moscow Times in an extensive interview this week.
Despite saying he is “already a part of history,” Gorbachev said he cannot simply observe passively what is happening in Russia today.
“I need to participate, and I will. Nobody will shut my mouth, even though people wanted me to emigrate. I don’t want to leave, let those people leave,” Gorbachev said, banging his hands on the table for emphasis.
Gorbachev, who in recent months underwent treatment at a hospital in Moscow, said he has been reported dead at least 10 times.
“I am called a traitor because I destroyed so many nuclear arms. The second treachery is that we built good relations with the U.S.,” he said.
For those who address their letters to Gorbachev at the Kremlin, time has clearly stood still. And today, when President Vladimir Putin’s Russia and the West find themselves at odds once again, the time when secretary generals in the Kremlin were engaged in an ideological rivalry with the West seems closer than ever.
Seeds of Discord
During the festivities marking the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall this month, Gorbachev warned that the world risks a new Cold War. As someone who worked his way up through the Communist Party at a time when the Soviet Union and the U.S. were ready to destroy each other in a nuclear war and who then worked hard to eliminate divisions in Europe and the world at large, Gorbachev is better qualified than most to offer insight into the strikingly similar issues the world faces now.
Today, Gorbachev argues that the problems in Ukraine and the world at large are in part due to errors made during the collapse of the old system.
“What is happening now in Ukraine is in many ways due to the mistakes of the breakup of the Soviet Union. Once they decided to dissolve the union, they should have agreed on territories and borders,” Gorbachev said.
“Crimea was Russian, and most people in Crimea voted in favor of joining Russia [in the recent referendum]. I supported this move from the beginning, and I am half-Ukrainian. I worry about what is happening in Ukraine. … It might not be a scientific fact, but we are the same people,” he said.
Gorbachev believes that the Soviet Union collapsed mainly due to the political self-interest of local leaders — above all, the first Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who, Gorbachev said, wanted to “get rid” of him.
Gorbachev has never communicated with Yeltsin since. “There was nothing to talk about with this usurper who went behind my back,” Gorbachev said.
Gorbachev says he supports Putin, despite having criticized previously. Pascal Dumont / MT
The Gift of Hindsight
At the same time, Gorbachev does not believe that the Soviet Union should have been preserved in its old form as a repressive state.
“We could not live like we did before, when people would make a joke and find themselves in jail the next day. There were so many problems, but society did not discuss them,” he said.”
“People had been breaking each other’s bones in lines for Italian shoes in our country,” he said.
Gorbachev said the union should have been preserved “with a new essence that would consist of independent sovereign states.”
The West, according to Gorbachev, used the resulting chaos in Russia to its own advantage.
“The West, especially the Americans, applauded Yeltsin. A half-suffocated Russia was ideal for them. Much of the mess we are in today is due to what happened then,” Gorbachev said.
“The main thing is that trust has now been broken. Everybody was losing because of the Cold War, and everybody won when it ended,” he said, referring to the ongoing rift between Russia and the U.S.
The U.S. felt triumphant and justified to expand NATO into Eastern Europe, Gorbachev said.
“It is true that the spirit of these German unification agreements were broken because we agreed that NATO infrastructure would not expand into East Germany, which creates a certain spirit. When they began to accept new countries into NATO in the 1990s. That violated the spirit of the agreements,” he said.
The question of the promise allegedly made to Russia by the West not to expand NATO eastward is often mentioned by Putin in his foreign policy speeches, with NATO expansion used to justify Russia’s actions on the world stage.
Gorbachev said that when he was in office the issue of expansion was not discussed, as Eastern European countries had not signaled any desire to join NATO.
“The main idea was that both NATO and the Warsaw Pact would gradually transform from military-political into political organizations,” he said.
“We pledged not to aim to seek military superiority over each other. Is this the case now? No. We destroyed so many weapons, tanks and so forth, and now it is all coming back,” he said.
The tense relations between Russia and the U.S. are also created by certain groups in both countries in favor of confrontation, Gorbachev said.
“There is the same type of public both in the U.S. — including the military-industrial complex that cannot imagine its life without weapons and war — and here in Russia too. Every U.S. president feels obliged to wage a war during his term or, even better, two — as the saying goes. I am serious. It’s not a joke. This idea has survived, and that is very bad.”
Putin the Statesman
Gorbachev, who on Thursday presented his new book about his life after leaving the Kremlin, said he supports Putin and ranks him with the political leaders of his own rule, such as then U.S. President Ronald Reagan and U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
“He is a statesman. I can say one thing: Despite all the criticism, I strongly supported him, especially during his first term, because Russia was disintegrating. He has done a lot. I said the president is successful. I criticized him too because you have to criticize leaders,” Gorbachev said.
He accused Putin of saying “what suits him” about the Soviet Union’s collapse, which Putin famously described as the 20th century’s greatest geopolitical tragedy.
“Doesn’t he know how it all happened? He knows, but says what suits him,” Gorbachev said, adding that Putin is currently “under attack” by media that are “not free.”
“There are no free media, either in Russia or the West. Everybody is dependent and works for the benefit of their own states. That is beyond doubt. For instance, I was in a hospital, where I had to do everything as prescribed. This reminds me of the press: It is free, but follows orders,” he said.
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? ↩
Macon Phillips, Coordinator of the Bureau of International Information Programs at the U. S. Department of State and Ariel Cohen, Director of Center for Energy, Natural Resources and Geopolitics at the Institute for Analysis of Global Security discuss Russian information wars in Kyiv on Nov. 19 at the Kyiv Post Tiger Conference. © Anastasia Vlasova
Oksana Lyachynska, Kyiv Post.
What does the Russian propaganda war mean for Ukraine and the world? How do you fight it? Experts from the United States, Britain and Ukraine attempted to answer these and other questions at the Kyiv Post Tiger Conference.
Below are some of the highlights from their talks.
Macon Phillips, coordinator of Bureau of International Information Programs at the U.S. Department of State
“Russia, the Kremlin push a lot of disinformation and you nearly want to argue about every individual piece of information, why it’s right or wrong. … We need to do more in terms of response. We need to actually protect the open system of media that is by far the best way to respond to these things.”
“The most effective way to counter the information war here in Ukraine is for Ukraine to succeed. We can spend all of our time trying to respond to this or that. But ultimate reality is going to drive that. If the Ukrainian government continues to implement reforms, continues to move forward, continues to sustain itself, eventually the reality will reach everyone.”
“The best way to respond to misinformation is with the truth. But the truth is a difficult thing to talk about.”
Dmytro Kuleba, Ambassador-at-Large for Strategic Communications at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine
“Russian information aggression is a threat not only to Ukraine but to all democracies. … The only difference is that Ukraine is in the front line.”
“What Russians are doing is not information attacks or information campaigns or information operations. They created a comprehensive reality encompassing all aspects of their interests. When you have to confront reality you have to create your own reality.”
“Russian information machine is built on fakes and manipulation, so if we want to win this game we have to focus on credibility.”
“It’s about changing communication culture inside the Ukrainian government. For example, minister of defense is key here. And we are working to change the communication culture to become more available for media. This is critical.”
“Russian strategy is based on the use of weapons of mass destruction. By this I mean Russia Today, Sputnik, army of trolls, bots, proxies, paid commentators. We base our strategy on something completely different, we base it on opinion leaders. I call them precision weapons. What cannot be done by us, can be done by opinion leaders in their countries. They can help us to disseminate the message. All we have to do is make them trust. They need to have trust in us.”
Ariel Cohen, director of the Center for Energy, Natural Resources and Geopolitics at the Institute for Analysis of Global Security
“We believe that Ukraine can make it as a European, free, Western-minded country. So does Vladimir Putin. And he is scared of that because an alternative Slavic, Eastern Slavic, Orthodox, half-of-the-country Russian-speaking country next to Russia is something they cannot tolerate. And information warfare is a very-very important part of the fight that has been launched.”
“To me Ukraine is now fighting its war for independence. This is where the United States was in 1776, where Israel was in 1948. This is creation of a nation. A part of it is an understanding that information is one of the battle fields, it’s an integral part of the strategy, of the war fighting.”
“To answer your question about Ukraine, what this is going to be in terms of the information campaign or information warfare, there is a famous quote from the cult novel of the Soviet times “The Twelve Chairs”: ”Saving of those who sink is the matter for those who sink themselves.” So, it will be up for Ukraine.”
Timothy Ash, London-based head of emerging market research for Standard Bank
“Over twenty years Russian interests infiltrated the West.”
“To know your enemy is key. The Russian state knows exactly how West functions because they infiltrated business, banking, academia, journalism, politics in the West. … The infiltration of Russian interests in the West is a huge threat to Western values and Western civilization. … The weaknesses of European Union is certainly been exploited.”
“This is a wonderful opportunity for radical change. Countries very really get this opportunity. Crises create opportunities, they force change. Ukraine is in desperate need of deep structural change. Putin has done a huge favor by uniting the population around this concept of European values. There is the price, but the fighting for democracy and freedom is worth it.”
Paul Niland, managing director of PAN Publishing
“The Russian media is acting to continue this fight to encourage people as volunteers to come and to kill people in the east of Ukraine. And for that reason my conclusion is that the Kremlin is directly responsible for all those deaths. They are directing media campaign, they are responsible.”
“The second conclusion is as long as Russia’s media campaign against Ukraine continues we can expect the hot war continue as well. They go hand in hand one to support the other.”