The fundamental problem in Eastern Ukraine is that because of the civil war, nobody is really sure who is in the right. It is true that Novorossiya had a referendum about independence last year, but it is also probable that this referendum was largely seen by the inhabitants of Donetsk-Lugansk as a bargaining tool to win more autonomy for the area. It is true that Novorossiya has two elected independent governments, but one could argue that these elections were held under duress, since Novorossiya was under Western Ukrainian attack at the time and conditions for a truly free election were unsatisfactory.
All the same, it looks very much as if Novorossiya is unhappy about being ruled from Kyiv.
Kyiv, on the other hand, wants to rule Novorossiya and has made at least four attempts, of increasing violence, to enforce that rule. Kyiv has also held elections, although many of the opposition parties were banned, and of those opposition parties which were not banned, most suffered various levels of violence from the thugs of the fascist Pravi Sektor, meaning that the elections were not by any means free and fair.
Nevertheless a lot of people voted for the leaders who had launched attacks on Novorossiya before, which suggests that they approved of attacking Novorossiya. On the other hand there is very little sign that they want to do it themselves; there has been no flood of volunteers to the colours (apart, again, from Pravi Sektor, who have ideological reasons for wanting to attack Russians — they believe, like Heinrich Himmler, that Russians are a mongrel race who ought to be exterminated). It appears, therefore, that a lot of people in Western Ukraine are living in a sort of dream-world within which they want victory without effort.
This doesn’t seem to be the case in Eastern Ukraine. The people there probably now want independence from Ukraine — which would probably mean union with Russia, not that the Russian Federation appears to want them — but might settle for something less provided that they were given guarantees of cultural and political autonomy within a federated Ukraine. The problem with such guarantees is that the Kyiv government has shown itself completely untrustworthy; they have broken every promise they have made, and therefore they cannot be trusted. Another related problem is that the Kyiv government has shown itself completely inept; when they break their promises it is usually to launch brutally mismanaged attacks which fail disastrously.
In effect, Novorossiya’s situation is rather similar to the situation of Finland in late 1939, under attack by the USSR. There are major differences, however. Ukraine does not have the resources that the USSR had and it is unlikely that they have generals capable of reversing the disasters of October 1939 — it is often forgotten that when the USSR exerted itself it tore up the Mannerheim Line like paper, advanced to Viipuri, and would have advanced to Helsinki had they desired to do so; the reason why they did not was simply that they had become belatedly aware that the Finns did not want to be liberated by the USSR, and the USSR had enough on its plate with the Polish and Baltic States occupation without having to occupy a hostile Finland as well.
Kyiv, on the other hand, does not appear to care that the territory which they are trying to conquer is full of people who hate their rule, increasingly hate their state, and will offer violent resistance to any occupation which could turn a conquered Novorossiya into a larger and less friendly version of Chechnya. What they seem to want is to take revenge on the inhabitants of Novorossiya for daring to resist Kyiv’s rule, and perhaps for the unpardonable insult of being Russian. One hears very little about what is happening in the territories of Novorossiya which have been occupied by the Kyiv forces, such as Mariupol, because no Russian journalists are allowed there and the Western journalists appear to speak only to official sources (the military and the Pravi Sektor, usually) and emerge hymning the glories of Ukrainian resistance against evil Russian aggression. Whether there is repression, whether there is brutality, we do not know, although we may surmise that, contrary to the claims of the Guardian, Pravi Sektor does not exist to provide picnics for Trotskyite Russian lesbians.
What this means is that negotiations have thus far been fruitless. One side — the one which has won a lot of the battles, although it has lost a lot of territory — would probably compromise if only a guarantor could be found that the compromise would hold. The other side — the one which lost a lot of territory in the initial political crisis, and managed to take some of its territory back at prodigious cost in blood and treasure, but has subsequently lost much of it — appears not to wish to compromise.
The logical conclusion would be that if negotiation does not work then the issue should be decided on the battlefield, ideally by the Novorossiyans taking back their territory by destroying the Kyiv armed forces, establishing solid defensible frontiers, and then taking whatever political stance they want, whether it be to exist as an impoverished buffer-zone between the rump of Ukraine and Russia, or simply going for outright union with the Russian Federation, perhaps with unusual rights of autonomy.
The problem, of course, is that Ukraine does not exist in a vacuum. Kyiv’s patron is the United States, and Novorossiya’s patron is Russia. Both patrons have made their positions fairly clear. The United States wants a stable, highly militarised Ukraine to serve as a base for NATO operations against Russia and a staging-ground for NATO operations in the Caucasus. Russia wants a neutral or friendly Ukraine which poses no threat to Russia, preferably because it is tied economically to Russia.
It will be noted that Russia’s desires are easier to accomplish and more peaceful than the United States’, but also that the United States’ desires have been much more completely fulfilled; Ukraine is now highly militarised and, outside Novorossiya, at least outwardly violently anti-Russian. The only problem is that Ukraine is so unstable that it is not a very reliable base for actions against Russia or the Caucasus, and the United States wishes to solve that problem by beefing up repression and crushing dissidence in Ukraine. What the United States is doing is very similar to what it did in Colombia, or in Turkey during the height of the war against the Kurds, and so the United States believes that the situation is manageable — not that either Colombia or Turkey have turned out to be exactly triumphs of American foreign policy.
The big danger from the perspective of the United States would be that Russia would change its mind in principle as well as in practice. While in principle Russia wants a united, peaceful Ukraine, in practice Russia provides arms, training and other assistance to the secessionists in Novorossiya, but simultaneously provides itself as an honest broker for talks aimed at ending the war. This is a decidedly problematic position for Russia to be in — backing one side while bringing the two sides together — but Russia’s argument is that while Kyiv is in a dominant military position its government has no reason to negotiate in good faith; therefore Novorossiya needs to be supported — but just not so much that Novorossiya decides that it doesn’t want to negotiate with a beaten foe who has never shown any sign of good faith anyway. It’s a difficult balance, and it’s increasingly pointless so long as the United States and its satellite Kyiv insist that the only acceptable outcome to the crisis is the unconditional surrender of Novorossiya and the advance of NATO forces to the Don.
In that case, Russia might abandon its vacillating policy. It is quite aware, from its experiences in the Iranian and Syrian negotiations, that it is impossible to deal in good faith with the United States; all you can do is get them to sign a document, but they will break every term of the agreement if they wish to, and if they can, so any negotiations must be concluded from a position of immense strength. (Ironically, this is precisely the position which the Americans had towards the USSR during the Cold War — and while it was probably a more or less legitimate position under Stalin, it was totally inappropriate under Krushchev and Brezhnev, both of whom were happy to deal with the United States in good faith if there were any reciprocal signs of good faith — which there never were.)
If this is the conclusion which Russia adopts, only one conclusion arises out of that: Russia will never be safe until the Novorossiyan crisis is resolved in Russia’s favour, and that resolution can only happen once Ukraine ceases to be an American suzerainty, and therefore instead of waiting for the Ukrainian government to collapse from unpopularity (which, thanks to the repression of the legitimate opposition, now seems impossible) the Ukrainian government must be overthrown by a combination of civil war, popular uprising and, ultimately, Russian invasion. In other words, Ukraine must first face a much more aggressive Novorossiya openly planning to march on Kyiv whatever the cost, Ukraine must then face a campaign of terrorism carried out by Russians and Ukrainian democrats sponsored by Russia, and then, after a couple of months of that, a lightning thrust to Kyiv along the lines of the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, except with considerably more violence and casualties among the Ukrainian military. There are numerous precedents for such behaviour, such as Kosovo in 1999 and Ivory Coast in 2010, although the provocation which Ukraine has offered to Russia is immensely greater than the provocation which Serbia offered to NATO or Ivory Coast to France.
The reason why the Russian government is not doing precisely this (although it is probably preparing for it and undoubtedly planning for it) is that they do not want to destabilise the global political order. However, the Russian government is starting to see that Western Europe is never going to treat Russia as a normal equal state (Western Europe’s behaviour towards Greece doesn’t exactly help in terms of calming Russia’s mood, either) and that in the end a cold war with America, provided that China and Latin America remain on Russia’s side, is less harmful than giving America a free hand to turn Ukraine into an anti-Russian satellite state. In which case, May would be a fine month for an invasion, and the mud of a Ukrainian spring would not seriously inconvenience the broad tracks of Russian armoured vehicles.
If that happened, the end product would probably be an annexed Novorossiya, and a Galicia under heavy Russian influence, nominally neutral but not recognised by anyone except Russia, and politically hostile to the NATO states all around it, all of whom would have interests in trying to carve chunks off it in the way that Eastern European states carved chunks of Czechoslovakia when the Nazis moved in.
In that case we can look forward to an interesting 2015, but not a prosperous one.