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Hybrid war: The real casualties in Ukraine

Russia’s Post-Soviet Wars

The undeclared Russian onslaught on Ukraine commenced in late 2013. The EuroMaidan revolution held in Kyiv in the dead of the 2013/14 winter showed the determination of the Ukrainians to join the Euro-Atlantic structures. The discredited Viktor Yanukovych’s government that ordered the use of live ammunition and snipers against the peaceful protesters fled (with whatever they could grab of their amassed kleptocratic fortunes) to their pay and task master in Moscow. In the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian war 11,000 to 15,000 people have been killed by mid-2017 and 1.6 million have left the warzone as internal or international refugees. To this number 50,000 refugees from Russia-occupied Crimea must be added.

September 8, 2017 - Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska - Articles and Commentary

war in donbas

The level of violence the Vladimir Putin administration is now ready to unleash on a sovereign nation-state is quite unprecedented, if compared with the other wars that post-Soviet Russia waged against its neighbours in Europe. The number of human losses seems to be fast becoming a non-issue. In the Russia’s wars against Moldova and Georgia, the Kremlin seemed to take care to limit the number of casualties. But gradually the Russian administration developed an immunity to an increasingly larger death toll with each conflict of this kind.

After 1991 the Kremlin attacked exclusively other post-Soviet states, viewed from the perspective of Boris Yeltsin’s doctrine of near abroad as parts of Russia’s exclusive sphere of influence.

Kyiv – the ancient capital of medieval Rus’ is now the capital of Ukraine, though the Russian national master narrative claims specious historical and political continuity between Rus’ and Russia. The medieval polity is typically dubbed “early Russia” (drevniaia Rossiia) in Russian school textbooks and even in scholarly works. In the eyes of a Russian imperialist or nationalist, Ukraine is an inalienable part of the East Slavic world.

In the Kremlin’s view the European (that is, Slavic) part of Russia, together with Ukraine and Belarus constitute the indivisible ethno-political core of Russia. This ideology of Great Russianness, with disregard for any ethnic, linguistic, cultural, religious, historic, or let alone political distinctiveness of the Belarusians and Ukrainians originated in the Russian Empire and continued under a variety of guises in the Soviet Union.

A legacy of this ideology persists in today’s Ukraine, somewhat weakening the country’s ability to defend itself against the ongoing Russian military aggression. For instance, in 2015, after two years of war, a sociological poll found out that 54 per cent of Ukrainians saw Russia as a country that was the closest to Ukraine from among any other foreign states. Even more, because over 66 per cent of Ukrainians declared that they felt a strong or very strong affinity with Russian language and culture. Ukrainians are inclined to get opinions and news from Russian mass media, opening themselves willingly or inadvertently to the Kremlin’s anti-Ukrainian propaganda. However, unlike the Putin administration may like to think, it does not mean the Ukrainians would acquiesce to a Russian conquest or partition of their state. As a matter of fact, the popular support for the independence of Ukraine as a state remains robust. In the wake of the Russian annexation of Crimea it rapidly spiked from 75 to over 90 per cent.

The hard facts of the war that Russia currently wages against Ukraine slowly attenuate the aforementioned Russophilia, which is still widespread among the Ukrainians. However, it should be rather interpreted as a nostalgia for the Soviet Union. An empire in which Ukrainians also had a stake, as civil servants, soldiers, entrepreneurs, railway men, or settlers.

Ukrainian liberal historiography has long proposed that the main difference between the Ukrainians and Russians is not delineated by culture and language, as typical of Central Europe. These two nations differ most substantially in the realm of civic values, and political attitudes and traditions. How both nations construe about relations between state and society, and how Ukrainians and Russians believe these relations should be organised. In their thinking on this matter, the former prefer democracy and the rule of law as practiced in the west. On the other hand, the latter extoll the civilisational uniqueness of Russia’s political system, alongside some historical mission that this country is supposed to fulfill for the sake of the entire world. In practical terms the Russian case sizzles down to an authoritarian empire led by a single ruler, or an autocrat.

The 2017 partial ban on Russian online social media software and traditional mass media should have been introduced already four years ago. Time is of essence. Each additional day that the Kremlin has the opportunity to expose the Ukrainians to Russian propaganda may tip the precarious balance of attitudes held by the public opinion in a direction that might facilitate Russian victory. This is especially true of Ukraine’s situation now, when Moscow chooses to emphasise the Russian language as the main indicator of where Russia’s true borders should extend beyond today’s Russian Federation.

Interestingly, after the EuroMaidan Revolution, some Russian-speaking Ukrainians of a liberal persuasion proposed to redefine the Russian language as employed in Ukraine’s public sphere. They argued that Russian, like English, became de-ethnicised due to the centuries-long employment across the sprawling expanses of the multicultural Russian Empire, which in its last period morphed into the Soviet Union. For instance, an English-speaker cannot be automatically identified as an Englishwoman, she may also be a Canadian, American, Jamaican, Pakistani or Zimbabwean.

To this end a comprehensive dictionary and grammar of Ukrainian Russian could be compiled with an emphasis on specific vocabulary and phrases that reflect Ukraine’s sociopolitical and cultural character. Unfortunately, as to my knowledge, no dictionary (or grammar) of Ukrainian Russian has been attempted yet, let alone published.

A new Russian World

The Putin administration’s sights, in line with the 18th century Petrine tradition, are set squarely on the west. The goal is not to join the Euro-Atlantic structures, but rather that Russia may retain its status as global power, simultaneously doubling as a civilisation in its own right. With no sufficient economic resources at hands for carrying out such a project on its own, Moscow hopes to game both the West and China to do its bidding. The currently worsening relations of the Unites States with China stand in opposition to the Kremlin’s happy rapport with Beijing. The American President Donald Trump’s erratic governance (or its lack) does not help repairing the US’s ties with China, increasingly pushing both states on a collision course. Meanwhile Trump’s unreasonable praises of Putin diminish Europe’s and China’s faith in Washington’s stability and predictability. As a result, the Kremlin is left alone to do as it pleases in the European section of the near abroad, far away from both China and the United States.

To the outside observer the Kremlin’s ambition seems to aim at transforming Russia into a homogenous ethnolinguistic nation-state, as is usual in Central Europe. Many commentators point out that over 80 per cent of Russia’s population is ethnically Russian. Furthermore, in 2002 the Russian Duma passed a law that requires all languages indigenous to the Russian territory to be written exclusively in Cyrillic. But to a degree, Putin, for the sake of domestic opinion, blurs the distinction between Russian-in-ethnic terms (Russkii) and Russian-in-civic-terms (Rossiiskii). The latter term refers to the entire Russian Federation or even to all the post-Soviet space, understood as the historical and territorial legacy of the Russian Empire. On the other hand, the concept Russkii may be interpreted narrowly as referring to the Russians, namely, all Russian-speakers, or even exclusively to Russophone Orthodox Christians. The broader interpretation encompasses all the East Slavophone Orthodox faithful, or the Russians, together with the Belarusians and Ukrainians. In the typically imperial manner, Putin plays with all these interpretations deploying that whichever may suit the Kremlin’s needs at a given moment in a specific case.

Moscow adopted a new policy of the Russian world (Russkii mir) in 2007. It entails that all the territories adjacent to Russia and compactly inhabited by Russian-speakers are naturally part of this world. This national polity comes in the overcoat of the renewed Russian empire, now translated into a seemingly economic form of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). Armenia and Kyrgyzstan are ornamental additions to this Union, while its core is the internal Russian world comprised of Russia, Belarus and (especially northern) Kazakhstan.

From the Kremlin’s perspective, the pivotal piece that is still missing from this Russian world-under-construction is Ukraine, alongside Moldova and Russian Europe (Russkaia Evropa). The last concept – largely unofficial, though it crops up in Russian journalese and titles of Russian-language guidebooks, typically encompasses the post-Soviet polities of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, which now are members of the EU and NATO. Only after having securedUkraine, the Putin administration would feel comfortable in its endeavors to expand hard Russian influence farther across the rest of the potential zone of the Russian world, including actual annexations of territory.

The Russian decision to attack Ukraine and seize Crimea came at a cost. The main foundation of the postwar political architecture of peace and stability in Europe and the post-Soviet area was cast aside, namely the Helsinki Accords of 1975. The Kremlin violated most of the Accords’ ten principles, including the crucial Articles 3 and 4 that declare the post-1945 frontiers in Europe to be inviolable and guarantee the territorial integrity of the extant polities. The Russian war waged against Ukraine, with no sufficiently vocal protests (let alone a political or military action) on the part of the United States or Britain showed that the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances was worth less than the paper to which it was committed.

In accordance with this document Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine gave up their post-Soviet stockpiles of nuclear weapons to Russia. It was done in exchange for the assurance of sovereignty and territorial integrity of the three aforementioned states, as jointly guaranteed by Moscow, Washington and London. The opening of this new era of renewed instability in Europe was sealed in 2015. In this year the resurgent Russia of imperial ambitions intervened in Syria. By now (mid-2017) the Russian armed involvement in the Middle East has left 35,000 people dead. The Kremlin’s military presence in Syria is officially justified by Moscow’s heart-felt foreign relations obligation to fight international Islamic terrorism. The Syrian operation also legitimises the brand of Russia’s “managed democracy” worldwide. Russia is poised to join an international of “electoral dictatorships” (also known as “illiberal democracies”), as evidenced by the recent entente cordiale developing between Russia and Turkey.

The hybridity of hard currency

The undeclared casus belli in the case of the recent Russian “hybrid non-attacks” on Georgia and Ukraine was the two countries’ successful efforts to sign and ratify association agreements with the European Union. The Kremlin leaned heavily on both Tbilisi and Kyiv to declare their agreements null and void. The very same end Moscow also seeks by destabilising (hybridising) the political situation in Moldova, as yet without resorting to the use of naked military force. The Putin administration wants the three post-Soviet countries to join the Eurasian Economic Union. If Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine are not stopped in their tracks and successfully join the EU (let alone NATO), this development would rattle the legitimacy of Russia’s EAEU and even shatter the dream of a unified Russian world. After the EU waived the visa requirement for Ukrainians in June 2017, repercussions followed swiftly, first of all, the massive Russian cyberattack on Ukraine on the eve of the country’s Constitution Day of June 28th 2017.

What counts more to Putin than the pro-EU wishes of the populations concerned in Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine is a geopolitical plan that the Kremlin adopted. At least as long as the hybrid conflicts can be fought on the cheap, or at best at the expense of the countries under Russian attack. The money is duly provided by oligarchs. The Kremlin bought their loyalty with the most lucrative companies and branches of the Russian economy, which had been passed to these oligarchs after 1991. The unaccounted-for income thus generated is employed for buttressing the power structure as it obtains now in Russia, and for the ad hoc plugging of holes, which may appear in the country’s overstretched budget. Any prolonged military expense could unbalance and even bring down this shaky structure.

Russia with its GDP of 1.3 billion dollars is a middling power that politically punches way above its weight. The Russian Federation cannot compare with the Soviet Union that economically and militarily could and did challenge the United States. Russia’s economy is over-reliant on the extraction of oil, gas and anthracite that accounts for two-thirds of the country’s exports. Any change in the price of oil may reset the entire Russian economy from one day to another. The situation is not conducive to socio-economic stability, and by extension to the political one, either. For the time being, the Russian system of managed democracy with inbuilt elements of legal and extralegal arbitrariness appears to lend a modicum of necessary stability to the country and the Putin administration. Nationalism and the renewed imperial jingoism stoked up by successful war operations abroad coax the Russian population at large to acquiesce to the current political situation, including the worsening standard of living caused by the 2014 nosedive in the oil price. Patriotism requires some sacrifices.

War is gratis

Each of the Kremlin’s three military conflicts with Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine that paved the way for the now popular buzz word of hybrid war either was or still is fought outside Russia. None of the three countries under Russian attack have the capacity to bring warfare to the Russian territory. The now foregone hope was, after the end of communism, that the Kremlin would relent and Russia would change into a normal democratic country with no imperial ambitions.

The wars in Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine have been rather inexpensive for Russia, unlike the civil war in Chechnya. Even nowadays the cost of reconstructing Chechnya and bankrolling Ramzan Kadyrov’s even more kleptocratic and arbitrary personal rule constitute a serious drain on Russia’s budget. This clear financial and economic constraint prevents Russia from engaging in a traditional kind of warfare that involves deployments of hundreds of thousands of soldiers into action and subsequently keeping them in place for the long-term occupation of annexed territories. For the time being, the Kremlin must do with innumerous volunteers pushed into patriotic duty by propaganda, or more frequently by inadequate pay and lack of gainful employment in Russia.

When the Kremlin waged war against Georgia in 2008, Moscow actually had to send Russian troops abroad. It happened for the first time ever in the European section of the post-Soviet world. Like in the case of Moldova, the intention was to establish a permanent military presence in the near abroad. To this end, in 2008, Russian bases were founded in Abkhazia or South Ossetia; a move that entailed substantial financial outlays. The two territories had been seized from Georgia and made into de facto polities. In a unilateral manner Russia recognised the independence of these two breakaway regions that ethnically are non-Georgian and non-Russian. Then the Kremlin had to face the economic reality of its military adventurism, which among other factors, contributed to the tumbling down of the price of oil to a mere 50 dollars in late 2008.

Moscow did not follow this route of formal state recognition in Transnistria, which is overwhelmingly Russian (Russophone). The option of either recognising Transnistria as an independent country or incorporating this territory into Russia remains open. In reality, all the three aforementioned separatist territories are de facto states that double as Russian regions. Their economies can (barely) function, only thanks to the steady flow of cash, aid and (usually heavily subsidised) business from Russia itself. These territories’ inhabitants need Russian passports to travel abroad, the three states’ documents valid only internally, and of no official value even in Russia.

In respect of the ongoing Russian war against Ukraine, the conflict is considerably cheaper for the Kremlin, though it involves substantially more territory and population. The victory of annexing Crimea keep ratings of Putin’s popularity up. This is the distinctive feature of hybrid war in its pure form: its cheapness for the aggressor and the staggering expense in financial, economic or social terms for the country under attack. The media usually overlook this crucial feature, and prefer defining hybrid war by focusing on colorful propaganda and untruths designed to conceal the actual nature of such a conflict from outside and internal observers alike. Due to information overload packaged in attractive images (often courtesy of Photoshop), hybrid war appears to onlookers as though another virtual reality computer game. This kind of propaganda makes the global public opinion forgetful to the hard facts of 15,000 casualties and counting in Ukraine, alongside 1.6 million refugees from the warzones under Russian attack in this country.

The sole tangible financial outlay that the Kremlin made during the current Russo-Ukrainian war is that on the ongoing construction of the bridge that would span annexed Crimea with Russia over the Kerch Strait. The bridge is planned to open in 2019. When it opens, the Kremlin will not fail to announce another victory, the victory of achieving full energetic and water independence from Ukraine. Meanwhile, Kyiv buys most of its oil and gas from Russia, affording the Kremlin a simple instrument of garroting the Ukrainian economy and population, when the Ukrainian troops are too successful at fending off Russian attackers.

The Ukrainian government may claim that it cannot take a more decisive stance on these issues, because Ukrainian society is divided in this respect. As many as 70 per cent of Ukrainians believe that peace must be reestablished in eastern Ukraine only on the basis of a mutually acceptable compromise. Although more than half of Ukrainians agree that eastern Ukraine finds itself under Russian occupation, only as few as 18 per cent of them would agree to the liberation of these territories with the use of military force. Almost two-thirds of Ukrainians think that inviting an international peacekeeping force would be a step in the right direction, while a third trusts that international pressure on Russia alone would do the job. At the same time, 60 per cent of Ukrainians want the population in the occupied areas to have access to Ukraine’s educational and welfare systems. This is Moscow’s hope that Ukraine may be kept down with Ukrainian hands and at the country’s own expense.

Between patriotism and oligarchs

The continuing tragedy of this war is deepened by the persistent denial of a proper name to the conflict. The Kremlin claims Russia is not involved, while Kyiv sanitises the reality on the ground by dubbing this war ATO, or the Anti-Terrorist Operation. A non-war ATO, indeed. But to those fighting and stranded in the warzone, shelling and shooting, death and destruction are nothing else but war.

Russia shirks from recognising this war for the fear of becoming an internationally acknowledged aggressor, a pariah of international relations. The EU has no intention to see the conflict acknowledged as a war, because it is easier to import Russian oil and gas than to become energetically independent. This attitude yields the oft-repeated slogan that “we have to talk to Russia”. At the same time Ukrainian oligarchs and oligarchs-turned-politicians continue trading with Russia and the occupied territories as if nothing has happened. These oligarchs and politicians with vested economic interests either tone down or out of hand reject any proposals of the full economic and financial isolation of the territories occupied by Russia.

The Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s Roshen confectionary company with the annual revenue of one billion dollars has factory shops in most Ukrainian cities and towns. Despite the early 2017 promise to close down the company’s Russian factory in Lipetsk, Roshen continues retaining its economic and commercial presence in the enemy country. Poroshenko claims that it is Putin administration who does not permit him to stop production at this plant. But in reality there is nothing that would prevent him from abandoning the plant without lowering himself to any squabble with Moscow on legal niceties.

Through the mass media and via the internet many Ukrainians have expressed time and again their dismay at Poroshenko’s harmful vacillation. Numerous members of the Verkhovna Rada berate him on this account, alongside Brussels and NATO. But Poroshenko keeps his options open, blaming this unprincipled stance he took on the Russian military aggression. The pressure does not work. Pesky opponents in the parliament can be bought or turned around with a political favour. Ukraine’s civil society keeps operating in a bubble of its own organisations and publications without a clear way to translate its considerable energy and desire for change into a tangible political action. The west is easily distracted and pays way too little attention to the difficult process of democratisation in Ukraine or to the Russo-Ukrainian war. The unarticulated suspicion is that many western European governments continue in their unwise proclivity not to treat Ukraine seriously. This is a dangerous political myopia that plays directly into Russia’s hands.

Tomasz Kamusella is reader in Modern Central and Eastern European History at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. His latest English-language publications include The Un-Polish Poland, 1989 and the Illusion of Regained Historical Continuity (2017) and Creating Languages in Central Europe During the Last Millennium (2014), alongside the co-edited volumes Creating Nationality in Central Europe, 1880-1950: Modernity, Violence and (Be)Longing in Upper Silesia (2016) and The Palgrave Handbook of Slavic Languages, Identities and Borders (2015). 

The author would like to thank Leonid Zashkilnyak (Ivan Franko National University of Lviv) and Iaroslav Hrytsak (Ukrainian Catholic University, Lviv) for their helpful comments and suggestions.



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