– Why is our army fighting in the Donbass?
– Because the Russian army is there.
– And why then doesn’t our army fight in Crimea?
– Because the Russian army is really there.
This joke reflects the entire inconsistency of Ukrainian politics in recent years: while on the international areana Ukraine never loses an opportunity to maintain that they are fighting with Russian troops in the Donbas, containing them and saving Europe from the invasion of eastern barbarians the Ukrainian armed forces are hesitant to take military action in Crimea: this could result in a quick and bitter annihilation for the Ukrainian army, because there are 20,000 Russian troops in Crimea.
Even in Crimea, the Russian army did not invade in 2014 – it has always been there since the collapse of the Soviet Union. What is common between Crimea and the Donbas is that in both regions a majority of Ukrainian servicemen switched sides, refusing to obey to the new government in Kiev, considering it illegitimate. As reported, in the spring of 2014, Ukrainian officials and the media, “in the Crimea 80% of the Ukrainian military volunteered to side with the Russian Federation”.
The new Ukrainian authorities had to face a similar phenomenon in the Donbas, as the former members of the Ukrainian law enforcement agencies took the lead in the leadership of the self-proclaimed republics – people who until recently wore the uniform of the Ukrainian army, the police or the Ukrainian Security Service. As stated in 2015 by the Military Prosecutor of Ukraine Anatoly Matios: “The Military Prosecutor’s Office of Ukraine has a list of 8,000 employees of Ukrainian law enforcement agencies and military personnel who have joined the militia”. It is these people, as well as former civilians from among the local population that make up the backbone of the armies of the unrecognized republics.
In our times, when there is ongoing satellite monitoring of military infrastructure facilities and military units of other countries, it would be difficult to hide the redeployment of regular troops. In almost four years, all the evidence Kiev could offer about the Russian troops was reduced only to isolated episodes regarding the presence of individual citizens of the Russian Federation in the conflict, not acting servicemen of the Russian army. Similarly, hundreds of citizens of the Russian Federation, who are oppositional to the government of the Russian Federation, voluntarily go to participate in the conflict on the side of Kiev – and this does not mean that Russian troops are fighting against the unrecognized republics of Donbass. Moreover, many European citizens and people from Georgia, Abkhazia, Serbia, the United States and even India have come as volunteers on both sides of the conflict. Certainly it is safe to assume that several dozen Russian military advisers or instructors are present in the Donbass, – while NATO military advisers are helping the Kiev army on the other hand.
Poroshenko said last year that three thousand Russian soldiers are present in the Donbass, in addition to forty thousand militiamen. Only three thousand Russians? For Kiev, however, it is vital to support the legend of the Russian troops in the Donbass for several reasons:
1) It helps to mobilize people into the army, appealing to patriotic feelings;
2) Such a legend helps Ukraine to represent itself as a victim and ask for financial assistance from Western countries – Kiev can indefinitely simulate “Russian aggression”, knocking out material aid from Western countries;
3) No government ever formally conducts aggression, but only “defends itself” – in order to suppress its own insurgents, they must be presented as “aggressors” or “agents of another country”;
4) Ukrainian citizens with Russian simpathies are traditionally called “Russians” (with a negative undertone). Ukrainians, like other people, can be both supporters and opponents of the EU, they can be supporters and opponents of Russia, they can be communists and Nazis, democrats and anarchists. However, such a banal fact is stubbornly ignored both by Kiev and the Western media, who strive to identify as “Ukrainians” only the supporters of the new post-Maidan European Ukraine, labelling all others “Russians”. An interesting progressive allegory seems to have taken place in the public discourse: Ukrainians who opposed the post-Maidan order were first called “pro-Russian”, then “Russians” and finally they became “the Russian army”.
5) the reality that the Ukrainian army can not defeat the insurgents four years since the conflict started is unacceptable for officials and patriots, as it shows their own weakness (and no one wants to admit it). It is much more profitable in this respect to present everything as if you are dealing with a much stronger opponent – this is the only way to “save face”. This is what a ten-year-old boy does when he claims that ten or twenty high school students have beaten him at school – he never admits that he was beaten by a junior class student, even if that was the case.
In May 2017, the Ukrainian Deputy Minister for Temporary Occupied Territories and Internally Displaced Persons Georgy Tuka stated: “To date, Ukraine has not been able to prove the presence of Russian troops on its territory by judicial means”. According to him, when proving in court the facts of Russia’s invasion of its territory, Ukraine must operate with international terms and concepts. “We can tear up a hundred vyshivanki a day. But this is not a solution! These are absolutely emotional things. This is the beheavior of deputies working on the electorate. Deceiving people. Manipulating them”, Tuka remarked.
Ukrainian Chief of General Staff of Ukraine, General Muzhenko, said about the same thing in 2015.
The OSCE Mission, which is present in the Donbass on both sides of the front, has not been able to find regular Russian troops there for years. “When I am asked if there are Russian army unities there, then, referring to the information of our observers, I say that these unities are not there,” OSCE Secretary General Lamberto Zannier observed on September 8, 2016, during a briefing in Kiev.
Therefore, Ukrainian media has to make do with all sort of evidence that come at hand, like this one for example: “In the area of the temporarily occupied village Ozerianovka an unarmed man was recently observed in clothes with samples of camouflage of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation without insignia, which automatically refutes all the Kremlin’s statements about the absence of Russian troops in the Donbass “.
In this way Ukraine is leading a “war with Russia” for the fourth year, without Russia having taken notice that Ukraine was at war with her. Formally, the Agreement on Friendship and Cooperation signed by Russia and Ukraine in 1997 continues to be in force.
Russia periodically deportes former members of the Donbass militia who took refuge on its territory back to Ukraine (although they face prison there), simply because they are formally citizens of Ukraine and sometimes overstay their allowed period of stay in the territory of the Russian Federation. At the end of last year, Russia completed a railway bypassing Ukraine and the Donbass, which speaks, at least, of a reluctancy to interfere in the Ukrainian conflict: there would be little point in spending billions on construction of detours railways, gas pipelines and the bridge to Crimea over the Kerch straight. Russia also remains the main trading partner of Ukraine and delivers most of the energy supplies; in 2017 the purchase of coal by Ukraine from Russia doubled. Generally two states at war with each other do not behave in this way.
Many Western politicians also benefit from reiterating the myth of the “Russian aggression”, because this becomes instrumental in helping them to mobilize their electorate against “external aggression” and “threats to European values”. With regard to the current Russian leadership, Western politicians try prepare themselves for any of the possible outcomes and use them against Russia. In the hypothetical scenario of a suppression of the revolt in the Donbass by force, the Russian leadership would lose a lot of support among Russian voters for its failure to intervene and protect ethnic Russians abroad, demonstrating its weakness. Conversely, in the case of a Russian military intervention, we could expect a quick defeat for the weaker Ukrainian army, but then the financial expenses for maintaining the infrastructure and millions of Ukrainian pensioners will lie entirely on the Russian budget, again provoking discontent among Russian citizens. Thus, Russia is trying to balance the act, eluding both worst-case scenarios, avoinding direct intervention in the conflict, while providing humanitarian and military assistance to the Donbass republics.
Meanwhile, the bulk of military personnel on both sides are Ukrainian citizens: a classic civil war. During the recent exchange of prisoners between Kiev and the People’s Democratic Republic of Lugansk, Ukrainian citizens were exchanged for Ukrainian citizens. Although among the hundreds of captured militiamen of Donetsk one Estonian citizen was caught, but no one speaks of “Estonian troops” in the Donbass. The vicedirector of the Ukrainian Institute for Policy Analysis and Management Ruslan Bortnik commented: “In fact, Ukrainians are being exchanged for Ukrainians. While the Constitution and the law on citizenship explicitly prohibit the extradition of our citizens, we are expelling them from the country. This is absolute savagery. The very fact of such an exchange is seriously hurting the notion of a ‘Ukrainian-Russian war’, which the government constantly perpetuates”.
In Ukraine alone there are very many convinced supporters and opposers of the current Kyiv government. And only the citizens of Ukraine will have to live with all the consequences of this conflict, however it will end.