Signs that East Ukraine has averted mass human tragedy


At the time of writing on Sunday, the ABC was reporting that the destructive civil war raging in East Ukraine since April now seems to be drawing to a close, essentially on Kiev’s terms. It appears that the tense test of wills between Russia and the West generated by the crisis, which briefly last week risked a wider war, has ended in a tacit backdown by Moscow.  

The ABC news report carried the following:   

Pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine say they are prepared to strike a ceasefire deal with Kiev forces as Russia calls for ‘urgent measures’ to prevent a humanitarian disaster in the region.

There are conflicting reports whether Russia actually tried in recent days to send in an armed ‘humanitarian convoy’ to relieve the beleaguered separatist forces in East Ukraine. Kiev says they did try, but were warned back. Moscow says this is a fairy tale. The truth is probably that US intelligence picked up signs of mobilisation for such a move, and Obama warned Putin it would be regarded by the West as a hostile act.

So ends, in my interpretation of published news, the biggest threat to East-West peace since the Cold War. It ends in devastation and tragedy for the people of East Ukraine.

As my former DFAT colleague (and former Australian Ambassador to Moscow) Cavan Hogue commented on Saturday:

It’s a very complicated situation. Places like Crimea and Odessa and where the troubles are now are inhabited by Russian-speaking people who think of themselves as Russian. So, are we going for self-determination or are we going for territorial integrity? 

It seems that territorial integrity has won.

Hogue also suggested that for Australia publicly to insult the Russian Government seemed pointless: what was in it for us to get involved? He wondered how much of this was for domestic purposes?  I will answer: almost all of it. The outrage over the M17 shoot down,  seemingly by Moscow-armed separatists who mistook it for a Ukrainian airforce plane on a bombing mission against them, and the anti-Moscow sentiments of sizeable numbers of Australian voters, created a fertile field for vote-garnering by a beleaguered Abbott government. Perforce, Labor has to follow suit. 

As for the Americans and European Union, they must have been irritated by Abbott’s inept efforts to put himself front and centre of international response to the MH17 disaster. The vainglorious foolishness of the proclaimed armed ADF/AFP mission to seize control of the crash area in order to search for remains and establish accountability would have particularly concerned the Dutch and Malaysians.

As I read Paul McGeough's report for Fairfax Media, heavy-handed Australian tactics in this tragicomedy actually complicated the release by the separatists of the black box flight recorders and the train carrying the remains. In the end, quiet diplomacy by the Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak secured these essential goals.  

Neither Abbott and Bishop, nor Australia, emerge with credit from these weeks of parochial and insensitive world grandstanding. As for Bishop’s diplomatic triumph at the UN (on which I wrote on 21 July), much of this would have reflected staff work by a highly competent Australian UN Mission led by Ambassador Gary Quinlan in drafting appropriate resolutions, setting up meetings, and preparing talking points for those meetings.

But to return to the main story of the war, which the Red Cross rightly designated a civil war subject to humanitarian rules of war: 

Since April, Ukraine’s President Poroshenko led a forceful but calibrated military campaign against the separatist region, deploying troops, tanks, aircraft and artillery bombardment against towns and villages where civilians lived. The goal was to cause just enough damage to encourage refugee flows, to clear the battlefield.

As a result, the extent of the outgunned rebel-held area steadily shrank to two major cities Donetsk and Lugansk and some surrounding rural areas. The rebels appear no longer to hold a corridor to the nearby Russian border. Approximately 1500 Ukrainians have been killed in the conflict and over 250,000 people forced to flee their homes and farms: some to Russia, some to other parts of Ukraine. Key infrastructure (roads, bridges, power supplies, hospitals) were destroyed and great suffering inflicted on the people of East Ukraine.

When I wrote my last commentary in Eureka Street, on 30 July, my hunch was that Putin would intervene but was waiting for the right moment to do so.  He was between a rock and a hard place, but I thought domestic political considerations and I believe his own values, would finally impel him to send in overwhelming Russian forces. In the end, he left it too late.

As Hogue said:

 What can Putin do? He can back down and lose face domestically and internationally or he can hit back. He's left in a very difficult situation.   

Finally, it seems today, Putin succumbed to American power and steely resolve.  Obama, with full backing from Germany and Britain, seems to have persuaded Putin not to launch any form of unilateral humanitarian intervention into East Ukraine.

According to the ABC report, Obama and Angela Merkel agreed on Saturday night Australian time that such a move would be unacceptable, would violate international law, and would provoke additional consequences. David Cameron’s office reported that he and Obama had spoken, had expressed grave concern, and had agreed any humanitarian mission by Russia into Ukraine would be unjustified and illegal. All very strong diplomatic language to Moscow.

Soon afterwards, the prime minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic caved in. He said areas in the Ukraine's east where rebels are fighting government troops were lacking food, water and electricity. He said:

We are ready for a ceasefire to prevent the proliferation of a humanitarian disaster in Donbass. We have no humanitarian corridors. There is no supply of medicines... food supplies are nearing their end.

Kiev Government officials said they are ready to agree to a ceasefire but on condition the rebels surrender their arms.

So, this tragic five-month civil war appears to be drawing to a close, essentially on Kiev’s terms. I hope there will soon be some face-saving cooperation announced between Kiev and Moscow that will enable urgent humanitarian assistance to flow in from neighbouring Russia. (No other country seems in any hurry to help the East Ukrainians).

Thus realpolitik triumphs once again. In World War Two, this strategic Donbass industrial region (around Donetsk) was first invaded by the Nazis and then recovered by the Red Army in a bitter campaign. The region was devastated. It was repopulated and rebuilt since 1945, with handsome Soviet-style cities like Donetsk and Lugansk. Now so much human toil has been destroyed again, in a needless war that a modicum of statesmanship and diplomacy could have prevented. These people have again been dealt a raw deal by history. 

Much now depends on the quality of Poroshenko’s leadership. Will he reach out in charity and compassion to the defeated people of East Ukraine, or will he be vengeful and triumphant, stirring up more trouble for Europe’s future peace? Surely Europe has had enough of discriminated-against, resentful ethnic minorities lodged unhappily in fragile multicultural nations?

Tony Kevin headshotTony Kevin is a former Australian ambassador to Poland.

Topic tags: Tony Kevin, Ukraine, Russia, Putin, Obama, war



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Existing comments

Geography counts... To be born in Eastern Europe in the last 100 years means having life and property destroyed as its the no mans land between two major powers. Maybe this also explains Australian Politicians... Surrounded by a moat around their island continent at the periphery of the world they feel safe enough to shoot their mouths off. We are the Beverley Hillbillies of international politics at the moment... Piling out of the jalopy whist everyone just rolls their eyes. I think we have this wrong big time. We have an " entangling alliance" with a bellicose major power in the United States . The so called protection we get from the alliance is now outweighed by risks of us getting drawn into a major conflict ignited by the United States. They are up to their necks in this in the Ukraine and their track record recently (Syria , Iraq and Afghanistan for example) is not great. You may be right that its over now as per the ABC but I don't trust any major news outlet on any side at the moment. The propaganda war is still in full swing :)

Greg | 11 August 2014  

How teeth-grindingly irritating, then, to see ordinary voters puff their chests out with pride at 'the brilliant response from prime minister Abbot and foreign minister Bishop' to this disaster. And yes, Europe certainly has had enough of aggrieved ethnic minorities surrounded by unsympathetic, often contemptuous and vindictive, majorities. Much now depends on Petro Poroshenko's next move.

Paul | 11 August 2014  

A great illuminating piece, thank you. Nice to have an informed insider view and credible speculation.

Greg San Miguel | 11 August 2014  

Thank you, Tony, for a clarification of a complex political situation, and for the hope that the present brings.

David Strong | 11 August 2014  

Thank you, Mr Kevin, for putting perspective in place on this issue. You have filled in a gaping hole in my understanding.

john frawley | 11 August 2014  

Abbott's tunnel vision lead him to believe this was his 9/11 moment, when the perception of his government would change. Interesting to learn that he was yet again screwing things up.

Peter Horan | 11 August 2014  

I completely agree with the comments. Sadly we look very silly once again thanks to Abbott's ineptitude. Having spent time in the UK I can see we very ,very rarely rate a mention in the UK Media except for natural disasters of which we seem to be having more

Gavin O'Brien | 11 August 2014  

Thanks for comments. The end of this unequal war is slow in coming. Over 40 hours after rebel leader appealed for ceasefire and humanitarian help as reported, Kiev military spokesman said war will go on "until rebels raise white flag", I.e. unconditional surrender. Random shelling of Donetsk continues. Silence now from Obama, Cameron, and Merkel, having scared Russia into keeping out. Poroshenko is free to take his time, shelling and starving rebel areas into total submission. Well done, chaps.

Tony Kevin | 11 August 2014  

Statesmanship on all sides is now required to avoid a repeat of Ukraine-type situations with Russia. Some sort of summit between Western leaders and Putin might be a good start. Putin would be assured that the Ukraine won’t join NATO, so assuring him there will be no Western forces on Russia’s southern flank,. But it should also be made clear to him that Russia must accept that the Ukraine will be joining the EC. Such a meeting could also be a basis for negotiating a range of understandings with Russia and the West to discourage any future Russian irredentist escapades. Perhaps too someone should quietly assure Putin that the $40 billion he has stashed in Switzerland is safe provided he behaves himself. Hopefully the Russian people will eventually settle that issue with him and his fellow kleptocrats some day. Ukrainian president Poroshenko needs to adopt a Mandela-like attitude towards the disgruntled East Ukrainians and sincerely try to address their grievances. He should also call a truce, to minimize further bloodshed and ongoing enmity against Kiev. Hopefully the oafs leading the rebels won’t mistake this for a sign of weakness.

Dennis | 12 August 2014  

The 40 billion Putin has stashed away in Switzerland ... What is the source of that information and how do they know? Surely not from a US or UK "independent" organization?!

Greg | 12 August 2014  

Greg: If you google “Putin, $40 billion Swiss bank account” pages of Net listings will appear describing Putin’s $40b Swiss bank stash, including those citing Times of London articles. And yes, this information comes from UK and US news media which we know form one giant monolithic network who all speak with one voice, all distort the truth the same way etc to manufacture “consensus reality” for the gullible masses. Nothing like the free, diverse and liberal press they have in Putin’s Russia.

Dennis | 14 August 2014  

Hi Dennis, I never said the Russian press was free diverse and liberal (your words not mine). I did not assert that that the Western Media was one monolithic network that speak with one voice etc. Again your words not mine. The manipulation of the "gullible masses" as you put it is more subtle and the basics were worked out about 100 years ago in the United States.(Check out Edward Bernays and Walter Lippmann). It is also appropriate to point out CIA "Operation Mockingbird" a little later on that was put to a stop (nudge, nudge, wink , wink) by George Bush Snr when head of the CIA in the 1970's. The end result is that know one in the general public really knows what is going on, on either side.You cannot trust the media on either side.

Greg | 18 August 2014  

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