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Ukraine End Game?

As the Russian-backed rebels abandoned almost all their positions in eastern Ukraine apart from the two regional capital cities, Donetsk and Luhansk, the various players made predictable statements.

Newly elected Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said cautiously that this could be “the beginning of the turning point in the fight against militants.” Don’t make promises that you are not sure you can keep.

The new defence minister, Lieutenant-General Valeriy Heletey, boldly promised the Ukrainian parliament that “There will be a victory parade… in Ukraine’s Sevastopol.” But that would require the Ukraine to take back the southern province of Crimea, which Russia seized and annexed in March, so it is a promise that will never be kept. Crimea is gone.

Pavel Gubarev, the self-proclaimed governor of the Donetsk People’s Republic, told a rally in the city that “We will begin a real partisan war around the whole perimeter of Donetsk. We will drown these wretches (the Ukrainian army) in blood.” That is standard morale-raising rhetoric in the wake of a military collapse – or, as the rebels prefer to call it, a “tactical retreat.”

But Igor Strelkov, the military commander of the rebels in Donetsk province, made a truly revealing comment. Pleading for Russian military intervention on 3 July, five days before his paramilitary forces abandoned Sloviansk, Kramatorsk and other rebel strongholds in the north of the province, Strelkov warned Moscow that his troops were “losing the will to fight.”

A military commander will never admit such a thing in public unless his situation is truly desperate. How desperate became clear on Tuesday when Strelkov’s troops all headed south for the relative safety of Donetsk city.

The Ukrainian army had been shelling them in Sloviansk, but there was no major Ukrainian offensive. The rebel fighters just started pulling out of the city, and those in other rebel-held northern towns followed suit. Strelkov (who is actually a Russian citizen named Igor Girkin) was left scrambling to explain what was happening in terms that made military sense, and he did the best he could.

This may be telling President Poroshenko what he most wants to know, which is whether or not this week’s events really constitute a “turning point” in the military conflict in eastern Ukraine. The answer appears to be “yes”: the morale of Strelkov’s troops (many of whom are Russian “volunteers”) is cracking as they realise that the motherland is really not going to send its own army into eastern Ukraine to help them out.

There never was mass support for the pro-Russian “revolution” in Donetsk and Luhansk provinces in April. Most people there speak Russian, and they were worried about where the real revolution in Kiev was taking the country even before Russian propaganda started telling them that “fascists” had seized control of the country and wanted to kill them. But they didn’t actually want to join Russia.

When the real revolution began in Kiev late last year, huge crowds of unarmed civilians stayed on Independence Square day and night for months. Only in the final few days did former president Viktor Yanukovych order his police to start shooting, and only then did firearms also appear in the crowd. Things happened very differently in the east.

There were no huge crowds when pro-Russian rebels seized power in the east, no lengthy occupations of public squares by unarmed civilians, certainly no violence by government forces. Heavily armed groups of masked men just appeared in the streets and took over, declaring that they were creating revolutionary regimes to save the people from the “fascists” in Kiev.

Civilians in the east were sufficiently worried about the intentions of the new government in Kiev that they did not come out in the streets to oppose this armed take-over, but they never came out in large numbers to support it either. This was more evident than ever on Wednesday, when Pavel Gubarev was promising to defend the “whole perimeter” of the city and drown the Ukrainian army in blood.

Donetsk has almost two million inhabitants. The crowd at Gubarev’s rally was a couple of thousand at most. Donetsk will not become a new Stalingrad.

So, at the risk of tempting fate, a prediction: the fighting in eastern Ukraine will not go on for months more, and there will be no heroic rebel last stand in Donetsk or Luhansk. The Ukrainian army is already encircling both cities, but it will not launch a major assault on them either. It will just keep the pressure up, and the rebel forces will quickly melt away.

The Russian “volunteers” will be allowed to go home, and local men who fought alongside them will be amnestied unless they committed some horrendous crime. Civilian refugees (no more than 3 percent of the local population) will be back in their homes quite soon.

Western countries will repair their relations with Moscow as fast as possible, since they do not want a new Cold War. But Ukrainians will not forget that Russia seized Crimea and sponsored an armed separatist rebellion in their eastern provinces. President Vladimir Putin has managed to turn Russia’s biggest European neighbour into a permanent enemy.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3, 10 and 15. (“The new…gone”; “When…April”; and “The Russian…soon”)

Putin on D-Day

4 June 2014

By Gwynne Dyer

The presence of President Vladimir Putin on the Normandy beaches on the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings was planned long before the current conflict over Ukraine, but it is a useful reminder of the fact that Russia is not some Asiatic tyranny on Europe’s eastern borders. It is a European country that has played a major role in the continent’s affairs for centuries.

Not only were the Russians on the same side as the “Western” allies in the Second World War. They did most of the heavy lifting in the war against Nazi Germany, and they paid by far the highest price.

While 850,000 American, British and Canadian troops were landing on the French coast in June of 1944, 6 million soldiers of the Soviet army were fighting massive battles with the German army in eastern Europe. The land war on the Eastern Front was already three years old, and by June of 1944 the Russians had won: the Germans had already begun the long retreat that ended above Hitler’s bunker in Berlin eleven months later.

The price the Russians paid for their victory over Nazi Germany was huge: at least 11 million military dead (compared to fewer than 1 million dead for the Western allies). No other country in history has lost so many soldiers, but in the end it was the Red Army that destroyed Hitler’s Wehrmacht: 80 percent of Germany’s 6 million military dead were killed on the Eastern Front.

The main strategic significance of the Normandy landings, therefore, was not the defeat of Germany, which was already assured. It was the fact that Moscow had to accept that Europe would be divided between the victors down the middle of Germany, rather than along some line further west that ran down the Franco-German border, or even down the English Channel.

President Putin, who began his career as a KGB agent working in Soviet-dominated East Germany, will certainly be aware of the irony that he is commemorating a military operation whose main result was to contain Soviet power. And his presence will remind all the other participants that the Second World War was not really fought to defend democracy from tyranny.

Hitler never intended to conquer Britain, and was surprised when his armed forces conquered France in 1940. He was certainly not out to “conquer the world”, a preposterous ambition for a country of only 80 million people. His real target was Russia: the “Jewish-Bolshevik” Soviet Union. And he couldn’t even conquer that.

Unlike previous great-power wars, the two world wars had to be represented as moral crusades against evil because new wealth and technology turned them into total wars that required mass participation. If people are going to be asked to sacrifice vast numbers of their children in a war, they must be told that it has some higher purpose than the traditional one of settling disputes among the great powers.

The people who lived through the First World War were fed that lie, but we no longer believe it now. To a remarkable extent, the Western countries that fought in the Second World War still believe that it was a moral crusade, because Hitler was a very evil man.

So he was, but almost nobody in the countries that were fighting him knew about the death camps until the war was over. Moreover, the country that was carrying the heaviest burden in the war against Nazi Germany was a monstrous tyranny led by Joseph Stalin, a man who certainly rivalled Hitler in terms of how many millions of people he murdered.

It seems churlish to insist that the Second World War was just another great-power conflict on the day when the last survivors of the generation who fought in it are gathering to honour, probably for the last time, those who died on the beaches of Normandy. But there is no other time when people will actually pause to listen to such an assertion, and it is important that they understand it.

If the world wars were moral crusades against evil, then our only hope of avoiding more such tragedies in the future (probably fought with nuclear weapons) would be to extinguish evil in the world. Whereas if they were actually traditional great-power wars, lightly disguised, then we might hope that we could stop them just by changing the way that the international system works.

That was the real conclusion of the governments on the winning side in both world wars. It’s why they created the League of Nations after the first one, and the United Nations after the second. Both organisations were designed to break the cycle of great-power wars by criminalising those who start wars and taking the profit out of victory (because nobody will recognise your conquests even if you win).

The League of Nations failed, as first attempts often do, but the United Nations did not. There has been no Third World War, and no great power has fought any other for the past 69 years. Putin’s presence in Normandy is an embarrassment precisely because he broke the UN rules by forcibly annexing Crimea, but the enterprise is still, on the whole, a success. So far, so good.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8, 9 and 10. (“Unlike…murdered”)

Donetsk Is Not Sarajevo

By Gwynne Dyer

With due apologies to God, Voltaire and the Ukrainians, I must point out that if Ukraine did not exist, it would not be necessary to invent it. It is not a great power, it has no resources the world cannot do without, and it is not a “vital strategic interest” to anybody except the Ukrainians themselves. Not even to the Russians, although they are acting at the moment as though it were.

Bosnia was nobody’s vital strategic interest either. It isn’t now, and it wasn’t a hundred years ago. But Bismarck warned in 1898 that if there was ever another major war in Europe, it would come out of “some damned silly thing in the Balkans,” and an assassination in Sarajevo in 1914 fulfilled his prophecy to the letter.

Some things have changed since then, however. The next world war will not come out of Ukraine (which is only slightly north-east of the Balkans) no matter what happens in the next few weeks and months. Russia might invade Ukraine, there might even be a new Cold War for a while, but there will be no fighting in Europe beyond Ukraine’s borders.

Indeed, apart from the Balkans there has been no full-scale war in Europe for the past 69 years, and there was never the slightest risk that the fighting in the 1990s would spread beyond the borders of former Yugoslavia. Indeed, there was probably never a single day during the 45 years of the Cold War when either side seriously considered attacking the other.

The reason was simple: they knew what would happen next, even if neither side used the thousands of nuclear weapons at its disposal. Twice in thirty years, in 1914-18 and 1939-45, a major war using modern weapons had been fought over almost all of Europe’s territory.

On the first occasion, they lost a generation of young men. The second time, most countries from Germany eastwards lost around ten percent of their populations killed – and most of the casualties that time were civilians. Half of the continent’s great historic cities were reduced to ruins even without the help of nuclear weapons. It was a very expensive education, but the Europeans did finally learn their lesson: don’t do this any more.

That is why, even as Russian tanks drive right up to Ukraine’s eastern borders and the Ukrainian army prepares to die in a fight it knows it would lose, nobody else in Europe is getting ready for war. If the Russians want part or all of Ukraine, they can have it – and pay the long-term price for taking it, which would be very high. But nothing in Europe is worth blowing all of Europe up for.

Do not be alarmed by the fact that troops and planes from as far away as the United States and Canada are currently being sent to NATO countries that have borders with Russia. The numbers are militarily insignificant. Their purpose is simply to remind the Russians that the alliance will protect its own members should Moscow ever decide that it has also a right to “protect” Russian-speakers in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.

Moscow does not actually need to be reminded of that. It has seized Crimea, and is toying with the idea of seizing more of Ukraine, precisely because that country does not fall under the NATO umbrella. And it does not belong to NATO because NATO didn’t want to take military responsibility for its defence.

That was an entirely rational decision, because the Russians clearly thought Ukraine fell within their sphere of influence. This is the first time it has been independent from Russia for any appreciable period of time in the past three and a half centuries.

Moreover, the post-Soviet governments in Kiev had been horrendously corrupt and incompetent, the country as a result is even poorer than it was in Soviet times – and the population in the eastern part of Ukraine is terrified of getting tangled up with the West because it inhabits an industrial museum whose products are only saleable in Russia. What eastern Ukrainians really fear for is their jobs, not their right to speak Russian.

All this was clear twenty years ago, and that’s when NATO decided that Ukraine’s independence would have to depend on Russia’s good-will, not on NATO’s tanks. And for twenty years Russia more or less respected Ukraine’s independence, while seeking, naturally enough, to ensure that its governments were friendly.

The collapse of the status quo is partly the European Union’s fault, for demanding that Ukraine choose between closer trade and travel ties with the EU and full membership in Russia’s “Eurasian Union”. It is even more the fault of Moscow: President Vladimir Putin has been both emotional and opportunistic. He’s scaring people, which is never a good idea.

But if he does take more or even all of Ukraine, the West will not fight him. It will just take in all the Ukrainian refugees, strengthen its eastern defences, and begin the slow process of bringing down Putin by crippling the Russian economy. That would take years, but nobody would forget about Ukraine. It is a UN member, and even China has stopped supporting the Russian position. Remember East Timor.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10-12.  (“That…friendly”) You may prefer to lose part of the first sentence (“With due apologies to God, Voltaire and the Ukrainians, “) and the very last sentence (“Remember East Timor.”) if you think they are too obscure for your readers.

Obama in Asia: The Elephant in the Room

By Gwynne Dyer

Poor old Tony Blair is condemned to spend the rest of his life trying to justify his decision to help George Bush invade Iraq. He was at it again recently, insisting that the threat of Islamist extremism is the great problem of the 21st century. Western countries, he said, must put aside their differences with Russia and China in order to “cooperate” in the fight against radical Islam.

President Barack Obama, however, is tending to his real priority in world affairs: deciding whether the US-China relationship will be one of cooperation or conflict. Not that that is the stated purpose of his current Asian tour. Officially he is discussing a free-trade deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, with three countries that have already joined the negotiations (Japan, Malaysia and the Philippines) and one that probably soon will (South Korea).

It’s a very big deal. The twelve countries on the Pacific Rim that are currently in the negotiation – Canada, the United States, Mexico, Peru and Chile on the eastern side, Japan, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand on the western side – account for nearly 60% of global GDP and over a quarter of world trade. But there is an elephant in the room (or rather, not in the room): China.

China is  the second-largest economy in the world and trades extensively with almost every member of the Trans-Pacific  Partnership (TPP) – but it is not part of the negotiations, or at least not yet. If it is kept out permanently, many consequences will follow.

None of the twelve governments negotiating the deal has said that it wants to exclude China. The usual formula is to say that China would be welcome to join if it can meet the standards of financial transparency and equal access to domestic markets that are being accepted by the TPP members – but of course it can’t, unless the regime is willing to dismantle the controls on the economy that it still sees as essential to its survival.

Keeping China out of this planned free-trade area, the biggest in the world, is economically attractive to the current members, and especially to the United States and Japan: the TPP would give  US and Japanese companies preferential access to Asia’s markets. But the real motive driving the deal is strategic: they are all worried about what happens when China’s military strength matches its economic power.

The Chinese regime insists that it has no expansionist ambitions, but it has alienated most of its neighbours by pushing hard on its extensive claims to islands in the East China Sea (the dispute with Japan over the Senkaku/Diayoyu Islands)  and to seabed rights in the South China Sea (where it has disputes with Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines). They all want to nail down US support, including military backing, if those disputes flare into open conflict.

The US is willing to oblige. Even before leaving on his trip, President Obama publicly assured Japan that the US military commitment to defend Japan included the islands claimed by China. He will doubtless give his hosts in South-East Asia comparable assurances in private about American support in their seabed disputes with China. The TPP is not a military alliance, but it definitely has military implications.

That is not to say that a great-power military confrontation in Asia is imminent, let alone that China is really expansionist. What drives the process, as usual, is more likely to be the threat that each side sees in the power of the other.

Asked in a recent BBC interview about President Obama’s decision to shift US naval forces from an equal division between Atlantic and Pacific to a 60:40 ratio in favour of the Pacific, retired Major-General Xu Guangyu, former vice-president of the People’s Liberation Army Defense Institute, replied: “How would (the Americans) like it if we took 60 percent of our forces and sailed up and down in front of their doorstep?”

Then Xu added: “We want to achieve parity because we don’t want to be bullied. It will take us another 30 years.” That’s no more than anybody else wants, and it’s hardly imminent.

Former US Assistant Secretary of State Philip J. Crowley was expressing essentially the same sentiment when, commenting on Obama’s trip, he said that “Many traditional allies…value a strong US presence in the region to balance against an assertive China.”
In other words, it doesn’t take evil intentions to produce a tragedy. In any case, it’s not likely to happen soon. The point for the moment is that the strategic balance in Asia is what the US cares about most, not the Middle East or even Russia.

The United States still drops drones on the heads of various bearded fanatics in the greater Middle East, but they are just a nuisance, not a real strategic threat.

Washington has just sent 600 American troops (600!) to reassure allies in eastern NATO countries that are worried about Russian intentions, but it doesn’t really anticipate a new Cold War with Moscow, nor would it feel really threatened if that happened. Russia is not the old Soviet Union, and the US defence budget is ten times Russia’s.

The real strategic game is now in the Asia-Pacific region. Which doesn’t mean that it’s any less futile and dangerous than it was in the old days.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5, 8 and 11. (“None…survival”; “The US…implications”; and “Then…imminent”)