Sunday, July 20, 2014

Ukraine Power Outage

The other day I came home late from my job driving poor people to the doctor's appointments. After around twelve hours of driving, I was exhausted and took a prolonged nap.

When I awoke it was quite late, I needed to get to bed again soon to get up at 5:50 am the next day; but before indulging my sleeping habit once more, I needed to find something to eat. Thankfully there was leftover stake in the fridge. I heated up the cow meat in a microwave and retreated to my room to consume it. When eating food, I am in a habit of finding something to watch on my laptop. I looked at my subscription feed on YouTube and discovered a new Vice News dispatch from Ukraine.

So here I was sitting up on my bed. tired and sleepy, with a juicy piece of dead cow in my mouth, leisurely watching a report from a civil war, when an image struck me and brought the war home (to the extent a news video from a hipster website can bring a war home to someone on another continent). The image I saw was from a separatist checkpoint that was attacked and taken over by the Ukrainian military. A few corpses were shown laying around. These dead bodies were standard enough to not really imprint strongly on my detached mind. But then they decided to show a close up of a dead human face. This face of a rebel somehow got blown off his head and now laid in the weeds, like an enlarged, plastered mask or some discarded piece of horror movie makeup. This face looked very much alive, as if waiting to say something.

Were this face to utter a word, the first beings to react to this miraculous resurrection would be a thriving colony of pearl-white maggots you could see on its corners. A nasty image to be sure, especially when one is chewing on mammalian meat when confronted with it. A combination that brought in the most unpleasant, cannibalistic associations into my head.

Forgive the banality but this is the face of war, as much -and maybe more so- than all the war memorials that sprout all over the civilized world that both condemns and venerates horrible acts of collective violence.

This dead face also highlighted my own internal contradictions. As a Buddhist I abhor all violence, as a political observer of foreign (and not so foreign) affairs, I partake in what could loosely be described as an intellectually disciple that routinely sanctions and excuses acts of brutal aggression. I am the same person who defends Russia's claim to Crimea on my blog but also experience angst when there is some tiny fly that somehow got into my car who I want to lead to the outside lest this insect suffocates or starves within the vehicle's enclosure.

The honest question in foreign policy is not whether the use of force is good or bad, the inquiry progression is "When? Where? Can we afford it?" and "will it be effective?" and for me to join the fray of these debates goes into a sharp contrast with my borderline-pacifist Buddhist ideals.

Yes, of course, when a civilized country uses force, this force is always wrapped up in trite and self-righteous sentiments. Essentially it is always a version of good guys vs bad guys. A holy and self righteous war can and must be waged against the bad guys who aren't fully human as is.

You can always get involved in these debates -especially with the advent of the internet- condemning one side or the other as animals; but in the end ,much of this rhetoric is bullshit designed to drum up support among the population and excuse or ignore the inevitable civilian casualties to follow.

For you to peddle this is beneath your fundamental dignity as an intelligent person. Self-righteous indignation paints a neat and bright red target on the chest of the enemy but it also paints a neat idiot tattoo on your forehead. To be objective you must rid yourself of this first, powerful wave of the fog of war.

The first casualty of war is truth they say. Though truth has to die much earlier than the first human casualty. Truth is in no way the natural or comfortable conditions for humanity anyway, all societies perpetuate certain lies about themselves and others and sometimes there is no sacrificial virgin of truth that needs to be brought to the altar as that virgin has been dead a long time and hasn't even been a virgin in the first place.

The problem with truth for us (seven billion of thinking apes) is that it comes from without and we cannot control it. Lies come from within, we control them and we fashion them to give us comfort. Lies are a prerequisite for our societies and culture and thus a must-have for all of our feasts of violence.

War is one large group of humans trying to kill another large group of humans. Uniforms, military discipline, moral platitudes, parades, flag waving. All this organization makes the killing more efficient and targeted while providing a lying and living veneer of sanity to an old human affair of tribal brutality. All wars open up a portal of meaningless slaughter, a time warp that usually sucks in as many civilians as combatants. When the meat grinder gets going, it doesn't discriminate in its diet.

The human face being consumed by maggots reintroduced me to this truth. A inherently hollow sight, this piece of flesh had nothing to teach you about either the new "democratic" Ukraine being defended from the Russian menace or the expansive and great Russia being promoted by the separatists- the Russia for which this man died. The idea that made him into a horrific and discarded maggot feast.

Here I must lay some blame on Moscow.  His death, along with the deaths of hundreds of civilians in East Ukraine and now the deaths of the passengers of the Malaysian Boeing 777 are in a way a product of Putin's great game miscalculation.

For Putin, the revolution in Kiev was an act of war. From his Kremlin tower, this was a Western intelligence operation made possible by the weakness and incompetence of the corrupt pro-Russian president Yanukovich. With the help of disgruntled and naive citizens as well as Russophobic neo-fascists from Western Ukraine, America and Europe were trying to pull this key Russian interest (Ukraine) into their sphere of influence.

Unlike Putin, I didn't have my worldview defined by a KGB education conducted in a crumbling empire, thus my view of events is less conspiratorial. I think this revolution was not born as a plan in CIA headquarters but I also have my doubts as to whether it would succeed in overthrowing the government if it did not enjoy universal support from all western capitals.

In retaliation for the loss of an allied government in Kiev, Putin went into Crimea. Moral questions aside, this was a bold and brilliant geopolitical move. Buoyed by Russian television, the Russian majority in Crimea hated the revolution, feared the new government in Kiev and was very receptive to be reunited with the motherland. The new revolutionary rulers in Kiev were strong on rhetoric but disorganized and weak on the ground. This allowed for a swift and relatively peaceful takeover of Crimea. For a military invasion and annexation of an island with a two million strong population, this operation went remarkably smoothly.

It is crude to take advantage of the political weakness of a neighbor and a country routinely described as "brotherly" by Russian officials, but I can't honestly say that I objected to this annexation. Crimea was won from the Ottoman empire by Russians in the 18th century, the population is overwhelmingly Russian, for the majority of Crimea's history, Ukraine didn't exist as an independent state. Crimea ended up in Ukraine because Khrushchev gave it to a soviet republic in a symbolic gesture that -at the time- had only minor administrative ramifications. It became a part of Ukraine through a strange historical accident and most of the population (with a notable exception of Crimean Tatars) wanted to be part of Ukraine no longer.

If Putin would have stopped his retaliation there he would be a victor. Facing only mild and largely symbolic sanctions from the west, unrestrained explosion of support and patriotism at home and having avenged the inglorious fall of his ally in Kiev, he could have rested and reassessed the situation. A political Sabbath for the tsar and his new world. Alas, Putin now turned his gaze on eastern Ukraine.

When Russia took over Crimea it deprived Ukraine not only of a large peninsula but also of a huge chunk of the pro-Russian electorate in a divided country. Russia looked at the prospect of gaining Crimea but losing the rest of Ukraine to Brussels and Washington. Meanwhile a wave of discontent and counter-revolution rocked the Russian-speaking east of the Ukraine. People there were angry, felt disenfranchised and many loathed the new revolutionary government in Kiev.

The Kremlin now saw this movement as a powerful point of leverage it could use to halt Ukraine's westward drift. Here is how I interpret their strategy: Putin would support the separatists in the east with arms, people, intelligence and propaganda and make them into a force to be reckoned with as opposed to a ragtag militia made up of Russia-loving discontents. Ukraine's weak new government with its dilapidated military would be too weary to confront them and after a few skirmishes would sit down with them at a negotiating table. The compromise arrived at (with Russian help) would create a new decentralized, confederate Ukraine which would be pliable to Russian pressure through Moscow's influence and support of the newly empowered eastern regions.        

I reckon Putin was emboldened by the ease with which his government took Crimea and his sneaky eyes foresaw another easy geopolitical gamble on Ukrainian soil. But Crimea also emboldened and enraged the new Kiev regime and their western backers. Both were flabbergasted by Russia's successful annexation and neither wanted to lose another inch of Ukrainian soil to Moscow's long shadow.  

The newly elected face of Ukraine's democracy and thirst for European freedom -corrupt oligarch- president Petro Poroshenko faced severe challenges when he assumed his office on June 7th.

A country recovering from a revolution with a collapsing economy (projected to shrink around 6% this year at a conservative estimate) with the rising power of other oligarchs who were handed government posts under the interim regime and a raging separatist movement in the east. The Maidan protesters and right-wing militias who played a central role in the revolution also eyed him with suspicion and could potentially move on him if he displeased them in a significant way. For the new president to asses his authority in this political jungle, he had to quash the pro-Russian separatists. For him it is practically a matter of his own survival.

Were Poroshenko to sign some sort of a decentralizing agreement with the rebels to win peace, the ultra-nationalist forces would view him as a Russian traitor and move against him while his backers in Europe and America would scoff at his weakness- all of this happening as the economy is falling apart. A decentralized Ukraine could also be a boon to other oligarchs who today sit in governor's chair's thanks to the revolution and have control over private armies, government bureaucracies, criminal network and corrupt judges - not unlike lords of medieval Europe.

For him to reach an agreement with the separatists and ease his authority would be to commit political suicide. He made the natural choice to label them as terrorists and move to crush them- irregardless of the fact that Ukraine is borrowing money to wage this war and that the people in the regions under assault may view the Ukrainian army and private oligarch-sponsored, auxiliary militias who are shelling their cities as much as conquering hordes as democratic liberators.

Russia's position in this is also perilous. Kremlin's propaganda campaign labeled the new Ukrainian government as fascists on the CIA payroll who will wage genocidal war against Russian-speaking Ukrainians. Thus as this "Nazi junta" is waging an advancing war against the Russia-loving rebels and the cities they control, the natural question is why the Russian military has yet to cross the border and repel the infidels.

The answer lies in the fact that a Russian military invasion was not part of Putin's plan for eastern Ukraine. He saw the region as a pressure point to transform that country in a decentralized state open to Russian influence not as a new Russian frontier, now the east has turned into a flash-point of brute strength with some rebel leaders accusing Moscow of treason for not giving them full backing.

In absence of the invasion, the Kremlin has been giving the rebels better and more advance weapons systems to shoot down Ukrainian planes and warn Kiev that any further attempts at a military solution will be costly. Now it looks like one of these systems in the hands of amateur rebels has downed a Malaysian Boeing killing around three hundred innocent people.

In truth, Moscow probably realizes that the real sentiments of easterners in Ukraine are ambiguous. They are (or were) broadly pro-Russian and often nostalgic about the Soviet past. This puts them at odds with their new government but doesn't mean that all -or even a majority- actually want to dismember Ukraine and join Russia.

The sad part is that I am not sure that Kremlin really wants these regions; an assembly of tough industrial towns with an aging population, the east of Ukraine doesn't hold the same place in Russian imagination as Crimea - the playground of the Tsars- where Stalin negotiated a new world order with Churchill and Roosevelt and where -decades earlier- Chekhov came to recover from illness and where Lev Tolstoy fought in the Crimean war. Crimea was an island of romance filled with self-proclaimed Russians; eastern Ukraine was a chip on a geopolitical card table- too big for Moscow to forsake, too big to swallow whole.

Now with American backing the aging Soviet equipment of the Ukrainian military is rambling along the highways and rural road, ready to launch a final assault on multi-million strong cities held by the separatists.

The lives lost in the Malaysian Boeing are mostly those of western Europeans and their deaths can be easily blamed on Russia. So this tragedy is useful and gets headline coverage in western media. The tragedy of easterners stuck between separatists and Kiev, means less to the west. With their blurry identification with Russia, distrust of Europe and Soviet nostalgia, they don't neatly fit into the Ukrainian democracy vs Russian imperialism narrative which serves as the official party line and thus they are peripheral and expandable. Another assembly of gray corpses buried in the rubble of their demolished apartment houses.

A joke is making rounds in Moscow, "America will fight Russia until the last Ukrainian."

But then again, this joke is as truthful if "America" and "Russia" are switched. Whichever is put first, the joke retains its potency, the only thing that will change is that different people should be expected to laugh.

In this war, I support neither the rebels nor Kiev, Russia nor the west. I trust no one and rejoice at neither victory. I support the people of east Ukraine, the great powers conspired to give them a choice, "Russia or the West?"

It is a false choice, a choice that most Ukrainians reject, a choice thousands of them will die for.


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