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June 19, 2014

The Gifts Russia Gives to Ukraine’s ‘Separatists’

Kyiv, June 19, 2014. On the surface, eastern Ukraine has all the makings of a civil war. Fighting between “pro-Ukrainian” forces and “separatists” from the People’s Republic of Donetsk (DNR) and the People’s Republic of Luhansk (LNR) has led to hundreds of deaths over the past two months. In Sloviansk, scene of the worst of the fighting, morgues reportedly have been filled to overflowing.

Those outside Ukraine might get the impression that there are separatists out to destroy the “Banderivtsi” (followers of Ukrainian nationalist Stepan Bandera who had collaborated with the Nazis during part of World War II) while “pro-Ukrainian” forces aim to eliminate the “Colorado beetles” (known for their orange-black St. George ribbons, a symbol connected with the Soviet Union’s victory in World War II). This alleged civil war has produced thousands of refugees seeking homes in central and western Ukraine. On June 17 UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon’s spokesperson stressed that “the continuing violence in eastern Ukraine highlights the need for an immediate cessation of hostilities and a resolution of the crisis through negotiation and dialogue.”

Sadly, foreign observers such as the UN Secretary General do not realize that this is not really a civil war where two sides within Ukraine can be brought to the negotiating table. Who can the Ukrainian government negotiate with? The DNR’s own government is competing with Battalion Vostok for influence over the Donbas region. It has been at odds with the separatist mayor of Sloviansk, who himself has reportedly been arrested by his own people for committing rape. Last week, on June 11, the LNR was challenged by local criminals who set up their own Lysychansk People’s Republic. Nebulous talk about a rival state called “Novorossiia” (New Russia) has existed primarily on the Internet, though its flag can sometimes be seen at separatist barricades.

This is not like the United States Civil War by a long shot. In that case, state legislatures voted to secede from the United States and set up their own military forces. While there are locals who have set up rival governments and joined armed groups, the military might clearly is coming from Ukraine’s border with Russia.

The Donbas has witnessed advanced military hardware inflicting serious casualties among the Ukrainian army, including a Ukrainian military transport plane shot down over Luhansk by missiles, killing 49 Ukrainian servicemen. The arrival of “separatists” on three tanks in the Donbas on June 14 betrayed Russia’s hand in such violence. That same day, the US Embassy in Kyiv, citing satellite photos and local residents’ videos and photos, identified three unmarked T-64 tanks that had arrived at the border town of Novocherkassk, in Russia’s Rostov Region, by June 6, and later surfaced June 12 on the streets of Snizhne and later Makiivka near Donetsk. The day before, the US Embassy reported that Grad Multiple Launch Rocket System just recently shipped in and out of this same base near Rostov looked just like those being driven through Luhansk.

Russia’s involvement in eastern Ukraine, while at times murky, has become painfully evident in the past few days. The emergence of multiple armed groups fighting Kyiv, while deeply disturbing, has only obscured Russia’s role in providing men and equipment needed to sustain the conflict and make it more deadly. If there is anyone that should be brought to the negotiating table, it should be Russia’s leadership, and withdrawal of its men and weapons from eastern Ukraine should be a precondition for any kind of truce, let alone a lasting peace.

William Risch, Associate Professor of History at Georgia College