Dying for the Donbas: A Reply to Alexander Motyl

The Editors:

By Kirk Bennett

In a recent article entitled Dying for the Donbas? Prof. Alexander Motyl, one of the most perceptive analysts of the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian War, decried the continued loss of Ukrainian soldiers, even at a comparatively reduced rate since a ceasefire of sorts took hold this past winter. The lives of young Ukrainians, he argued, are being wasted in the vain pursuit of a ruined, worthless swath of Russian-held land in Ukraine’s southeast – a region, I would add, that was heavily subsidized even in peacetime, and is now thoroughly devastated not only by warfare, but by poor governance. Would it not make more sense, Prof. Motyl reasoned, to write off this territory, whose three million remaining inhabitants are implacably hostile to the whole Ukrainian national endeavor, and thereby spare the lives of Ukrainian soldiers? “The sad truth,” he maintained, “is that these poor young men are being sacrificed for nothing.”

Prof. Motyl’s proposal is rational, sensible and deeply humanitarian. Unfortunately, it is also flawed.

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published 4 June 2016: News Summaries

IN SEARCH OF THE MIRACULOUS

Guest Contributor:

By Kirk Bennett

About two months after the Revolution of Dignity drove President Yanukovych out of office in February 2014, I received an e-mail from a fairly apolitical acquaintance in Kyiv. She assured me that, revolution notwithstanding, basically nothing had changed and the country was still being run by a bunch of crooks and scoundrels. I thought at the time that she was just being an understandably cynical Ukrainian, embittered by years of dashed hopes and expecting too much too soon in terms of reform or improvements in living conditions. It turned out she was being exceptionally perceptive, or possibly prescient.

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published 13 May 2016: News Summaries

UKRAINE, SYRIA AND EUROPEAN SECURITY

Guest Contributor:

By Kirk Bennett

A recent flare-up notwithstanding, a stable ceasefire seems to be taking hold in the Donbas. Recognizing that a Russian knock-out blow in Ukraine is currently not in the cards, and stung to action by the steady weakening of the Assad regime in the Syrian war of attrition, Moscow has palpably cycled down its pressure, both military and political, on Kyiv. The Kremlin has billed its intervention in Syria as a Russian contribution to a joint struggle of the civilized world against ISIS, and has at the same time taken pains to be seen as playing a helpful role in the Donbas, demonstratively reining in indigenous hard-liners (occasionally with extreme prejudice) and pushing to postpone local elections viewed by Kyiv as illegal and by the West as provocative. Accordingly, there has been an uptick in calls to reward Russia for its constructive behavior by relaxing or removing Western sanctions at the earliest opportunity.

Not long ago I wrote that, by a quirk of geopolitics, ISIS had become a de facto ally of Ukraine. I stand corrected. Ukraine’s real ally in Syria is none other than Bashar Assad. It is Russian alarm at the prospect of the Assad regime’s collapse – not the need to forge some grand coalition against ISIS – that has of necessity deflected the Kremlin’s attention from the grim, long-term struggle to undermine Ukrainian statehood. How things came to such a pass ought to be a cautionary tale for everyone, and above all for the Kremlin.

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published 30 November 2015: Democracy, EU, Europe, History, Military, NATO, Russia

The Minsk Trap

Guest Contributor:

Kirk Bennett

The Ukrainian parliamentary debate on constitutional reform to promote decentralization has occurred under enormous pressure from the West for Kyiv to uphold its end of the Minsk Agreements, negotiated in September 2014 and February 2015 to secure a ceasefire in the Russo-Ukrainian War. The fatal clashes outside the Ukrainian Rada on August 31, as well as the alarming fissures appearing in the ruling coalition, underscore the extreme fragility of the Ukrainian domestic situation, which ought to prompt a serious reexamination of the Western approach to the peace process in Ukraine.

This reassessment should begin with a sober recognition of the glaring shortcomings of the Minsk Agreements. First and foremost, they have not really ended the fighting. While neither side has fully upheld the ceasefire, the most blatant violations have clearly been on the Russian side, which launched offensives to seize the Donetsk Airport in September and the town of Debaltseve in February before the ink was even dry on the two agreements. These land grabs were not merely conducted with total impunity; worse still, the Kremlin was allowed to impose even more disadvantageous terms on Kyiv in Minsk II than in Minsk I. The rewarding of Moscow for violating the ceasefire has created a horrendous precedent that can only encourage further Russian depredations.

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published 14 September 2015: Democracy, EU, Europe, History, NATO, Reform, Russia

Russians, Ukrainians, and the Deficiencies of Western Analysis

Guest Contributor:

Kirk Bennett

Since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, there has been an admirable effort in Western analysis to understand the Russian perspective. Unfortunately, this effort has not proceeded nearly far enough. Most analysts have confined themselves to Russian perceptions of the West, ignoring the far more pertinent question regarding Russian perceptions of Ukraine. An even more glaring shortcoming has been the failure, by and large, to recognize that there is any Ukrainian perspective whatsoever, let alone to grasp what that perspective might be.

This deficiency is well-nigh universal in the numerous Western accounts that examine the Russo-Ukrainian War through the prism of post-Cold War developments. The calls for a “new détente,” a grand East-West deal, or a new European security architecture as a means to resolve the conflict in Ukraine ignore the seemingly obvious fact that the West is not even one of the protagonists in the actual fighting. The Ukrainian perspective is not even so much discounted as simply ignored.

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published 6 August 2015: Democracy, EU, Europe, History, Reform, Russia, Security