Vienna, October 7 – “Before the beginning of every war,” a Ukrainian commentator says, “there are many in society who do not believe it will happen,” however many signs there may be that point to the opening of hostilities. But then, once the guns begin firing, they are “quickly forced to change their point of view.”
In an article published in Kyiv today, Oleksiy Tolkachov notes that Ukrainians today are in this position, frequently receiving warnings of one kind or another from Western journalists or even anti-Moscow Russians but preferring to believe that despite everything there will not be a war (www.pravda.com.ua/ru/news_print/2009/10/7/99858.htm).
While the opinion of the majority of Ukrainians may prove correct and that Moscow’s threatening posture will not lead to war, Tolkachov’s enumeration of recent events seems to fully justify the title he has given his article, “The Spectre of an Approaching War,” and the chance he could be right is reason enough to recount the arguments he makes.
Recently, Tolkachov writes, Mikhail Khomyakov, a Russian political exile in Ukraine, reported that broadsides with the words “A War with Ukraine Will Begin in the Near Future,” and the respected Swiss newspaper “Neue Zuercher Zeitung” said that Moscow was violating international law and threatening Ukraine just as it did before invading Georgia last year.
That paper and other Western news outlets have pointed to the mass distribution of Russian passports in Crimea just as Moscow did in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, to Moscow’s open support of pro-Moscow organizations in Crimea and other parts of Ukraine, its economic and political pressure on Kyiv, and especially its propaganda efforts.
“For five years,” Tolkachov writes, “the information-propaganda machine of Russia has not ceased to lay on Ukraine blame for the deterioration of bilateral relations,” an effort that means many in Russia new view Ukraine as “an enemy of Russia – and one that is in the same rank with Georgia,” with which Russia has fought a war.
The last two months have featured even more moves that point to the danger of a beginning of hostilities. On August 11, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev delivered an “unprecedentedly harsh” attack on Ukraine, one that leaves little room for a peaceful resolution of differences barring a complete capitulation by Kyiv to all Russian demands.
‘ Then in September, the Russian Duma approved an amendment to the Russian law governing the military, pointedly specifying that Moscow has the right to use its forces abroad for “the defense of citizens of Russia on the territory of another state,” thus legalizing what Moscow in fact argued politically a year ago.
Still more seriously, on September 1, Medvedev put the Black Sea Fleet under the command of the North Caucasus Military District, precisely the structure that conducted combined-force operations in South Ossetia. And there have been reports that many or all of these units are now on a continuing and heightened state of alert.
And at the end of last month, Tolkachov continues, there were numerous but naturally unconfirmed reports in the Ukrainian media which cited sources in Russia’s Black Sea Fleet that Moscow is engaging in planning exercises for seizing Crimea on the basis of the experience Moscow gained during its war with Georgia.
According to the Kyiv commentator, “experts [whom he does not name in this article] do not exclude” that Russian forces from the Black Sea Fleet and the North Caucasus Military District could, in the event of a military conflict, move “before the borders of the Crimean peninsula” and ultimately occupy “Eastern Ukraine.”
Unlike most Ukrainians and Ukrainian officials, Tolkachov continues, “the military command of Ukraine recognizes reality and the closeness of the Russian threat,” with some of its officers now rating the likelihood of the outbreak of a war between the two Slavic countries as high as 70 percent.
Concerned that “the period of information, gas and diplomatic hostilities is approaching an end,” the Ukrainian military is doing what it can to get ready. During the last week of September, it conducted military maneuvers in Crimea and adjoining territories, but its commanders recognize that they are vastly outmanned and outgunned.
Indeed, Tolkachov says, the under-financing of the Ukrainian army has “practically left it on its knees. Ukrainian soldiers lack money for uniforms, food, and soap. But the military is prohibited from complaining about its position,” and consequently, many Ukrainians and others do not recognize how dangerous the country’s situation now is.
In 1991, he suggests, Ukraine had sufficient military capacity to support a five-million man army for three years of war. Now, however, it is the conclusion of the local expert community that Ukraine could “not withstand even a week of full-scale military actions” against an aggressor.
Ukraine’s current situation is made worse, Tolkachov says, by internal political conflicts, the approaching presidential elections and what is in effect “the absence of state power” in Kyiv. “In the Kremlin,” he says, they could hardly dream about a better moment for the resolution of the Crimean question by force.”
If a war is going to break out, he suggests, it will be preceded by “a series of provocations, possibly, protests and risings of pro-Russian organizations (with the active support of citizens of the Russian Federation from among various Cossack organizations and people with dual citizenship) in problematic regions of Ukraine.”
Unfortunately, Ukraine has few good options. The best is to “launch a preventive information attack, warning the international community about this threat.” Indeed, Tolkachov says, “the only possibility of preserving the status quo is to create conditions under which aggression won’t be profitable for Russia.”
If Ukraine succeeds in doing that, something Georgia was able to do only in part, then any military move Moscow might make against Ukraine, even if it were “a victory” on the battlefield would turn out to be “a Pyrrhic one” in which the Russians would lose far more than they would gain.
Not surprisingly, the Moscow media features article suggesting that hysteria over a supposed Russian military threat has been whipped up by Kyiv for its own political gain, precisely the same kind of charges the Russian media made a year ago about the reaction of Georgian officials.
One can only hope that Tolkachov proves to be wrong and that Moscow is simply ramping up the pressure on Kyiv in order to secure more concessions but that the Russian government will not use its forces in Crimea or invade Ukraine as it did a year ago. If those hopes prove illusory, the resulting tragedy would be incalculably large.