Stopping the Humanitarian Crisis in Eastern Ukraine

September 11, 2014
A version of these remarks will be presented for the United Nations Human Rights Council, Geneva, on September 16, 2014
James George Jatras
Deputy Director, AIU

The announcement of a “permanent ceasefire” on September 5 in Minsk, agreed to both by the Kiev administration of President Petro Poroshenko and representatives of the Donetsk and Lugansk republics, raised hopes for a peaceful settlement of the Ukraine crisis. Whether it will hold until a political settlement of the conflict is reached remains to be seen.

Within a few days of the announcement, some residents who had fled the fighting began to return home. It is difficult to say at this time what proportion of the total number of refugees may return and when, or even how many there are. Already by early August, the number entering Russia alone (as opposed to a smaller number taking shelter within Ukraine) exceeded 750,000 people. (The real number in Russia may be much larger in view of those who were taken in informally by relatives and friends and may not have registered with authorities.) Estimates of those killed as reported in the media surpass 2,500. The number of injured is unknown but likely exceeds the death toll. There is a dire immediate need for humanitarian assistance, both to returnees and to those who remained at home, followed by assistance in rebuilding critical infrastructure.

Above all, what eastern Ukraine needs is peace. Let’s keep in mind that these victims are not suffering from earthquake or hurricane. The humanitarian crisis in the Donetsk and Lugansk oblasts is the direct result of bad decisions made by political leaders. While there is certainly enough blame to go around, it seems to me – as an American – that a major share of responsibility has to be laid at the doorstep of policymakers in Washington, without which Ukraine’s chronic political and economic defects would not have turned into an armed conflict.

I direct your attention to an analysis published in the respected U.S. international affairs journal Foreign Affairs (Sept/Oct 2014) by Professor John J. Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago, entitled “Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault: The Liberal Delusions That Provoked Putin.” He writes:

“[T]he United States and its European allies share most of the responsibility for the crisis. The taproot of the trouble is NATO enlargement, the central element of a larger strategy to move Ukraine out of Russia’s orbit and integrate it into the West.”

Professor Mearsheimer proceeds to describe how U.S. policymakers supported the unconstitutional and violent overthrow of the flawed but democratically elected government of Viktor Yanukovych and installation of a regime that would drag Ukraine into the “Euro-Atlantic” camp. This is something that could not be accepted either by Moscow or by large numbers of Ukrainian citizens, primarily in the east and south, who according to all polls didn’t want to be “integrated into the West” but preferred a pro-Russian orientation. Faced with what they regarded as an illegal administration in Kiev – one that included a significant number of Russophobic extreme nationalists and neo-Nazis – citizens of eastern oblasts occupied public buildings and demanded the right to govern their own affairs. In doing so, they were following the example of those who had seized power in Kiev “from the street” as well as earlier takeovers of local administrations in western Ukraine at a time when Yanukovych appeared to hold the upper hand.

Instead of negotiating an end of what clearly was a political crisis of the Ukrainian state, the new “authority” in Kiev – even before the May 25 election that installed oligarch Petro Poroshenko as president – decided to “resolve” the easterners’ objections with force. Both Ukraine’s armed forces and “national guard” units recruited from the “Svoboda” party, “Pravy Sektor,” and other extreme “social-national” groups mobilized to conquer the easterners, whom Kiev officials dubbed “terrorists,” “parasites,” and “dirt.” Kiev unleashed on civilian areas an array of weapons, including notoriously inaccurate “Grad” rockets (HRW, July 24), aerial bombing, and artillery and mortar fire. The fact that Russia is widely believed to be assisting anti-Kiev forces does not mean this is not a civil war with indigenous roots (cf., western aid to rebels in the Syrian civil war).

Until the fortunes of war began to swing against Kiev in August, U.S. officials expressed no qualms about Kiev’s offensive or the humanitarian cost to civilians, other than to give their blessing. As the State Department press spokeswoman declared already in April (even before Poroshenko’s election provided some limited democratic legitimacy), the Kiev regime has “the right to maintain calm, maintain stability, maintain order in their country.” In the same vein, the Washington Post, the voice of the entrenched Democratic-Republican political duopoly in the United States, scoffed at civilian casualties and opposed any ceasefire or negotiations (“On Ukraine, any bargain is a bad bargain,” editorial, August 21):

“With so many innocent civilians caught up in lethal combat, it is tempting to look for a cease-fire or some kind of time out that would lead to a period of diplomatic negotiation. But what would a pause and diplomacy accomplish? Any negotiations that leave this blight festering in Ukraine must be avoided.”

Compare this attitude to conflicts in any number of other countries, where American officials and “mainstream media” condemn a regime for “killing its own people” and unilaterally claim the right of the U.S. to engage in “humanitarian” military action – an oxymoron – up to and including “regime change” under the so-called “responsibility to protect” (R2P) doctrine. But even genuine humanitarian delivery of food and water (by Russia to Lugansk) is a “flagrant violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity” according to an official statement from the White House of President Barack Obama.

Nonetheless, to the chagrin of the Washington Post and most of the U.S. political establishment, Kiev’s military solution did stall, a ceasefire was declared, and at least tentative steps have been taken at Minsk toward a compromise settlement. Under any realistic set of expectations, this will be a long, complicated negotiating process in which success is far from certain. Distinct but related issues include:

  • The status and extent of the republics or other entity (such as “Novorossiya”): autonomy within Ukraine, independence, confederation? Will other oblasts be allowed to join?
  • Humanitarian and financial assistance from the West and Russia. Repairing the damage caused by the civil war: rebuilding the republics and their infrastructure, pulling Ukraine out of its economic tailspin.
  • The balance of economic ties between the European Union (EU) and the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union, both of Ukraine as a whole and of the republics, including energy supply and price.
  • The status of the Russian language.
  • Perhaps most importantly, Ukraine’s security status and potential NATO candidacy.

Let us hope the Minsk talks bear fruit. But in the meantime, let us also hope that the ceasefire allows a fuller opportunity to address the humanitarian disaster caused by the civil war in eastern Ukraine. Despite studious and callous disdain of western, especially U.S. officials, for the torment inflicted on Donetsk and Lugansk, what one Ukrainian journalist – now himself a refugee in Siberia – calls “the ugly truth” must not remain hidden.