Gwynne Dyer: Ukraine's end game?

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      As the Russian-backed rebels abandoned almost all their positions in eastern Ukraine apart from the two regional capital cities, Donetsk and Luhansk, the various players made predictable statements.

      Newly elected Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said cautiously that this could be “the beginning of the turning point in the fight against militants.” Don’t make promises that you are not sure you can keep.

      The new defence minister, Lieutenant-General Valeriy Heletey, boldly promised the Ukrainian parliament that “There will be a victory Ukraine's Sevastopol.” But that would require the Ukraine to take back the southern province of Crimea, which Russia seized and annexed in March, so it is a promise that will never be kept. Crimea is gone.

      Pavel Gubarev, the self-proclaimed governor of the Donetsk People's Republic, told a rally in the city that “We will begin a real partisan war around the whole perimeter of Donetsk. We will drown these wretches (the Ukrainian army) in blood.” That is standard morale-raising rhetoric in the wake of a military collapseor, as the rebels prefer to call it, a “tactical retreat.”

      But Igor Strelkov, the military commander of the rebels in Donetsk province, made a truly revealing comment. Pleading for Russian military intervention on July 3, five days before his paramilitary forces abandoned Sloviansk, Kramatorsk and other rebel strongholds in the north of the province, Strelkov warned Moscow that his troops were “losing the will to fight.”

      A military commander will never admit such a thing in public unless his situation is truly desperate. How desperate became clear on Tuesday when Strelkov’s troops all headed south for the relative safety of Donetsk city.

      The Ukrainian army had been shelling them in Sloviansk, but there was no major Ukrainian offensive. The rebel fighters just started pulling out of the city, and those in other rebel-held northern towns followed suit. Strelkov (who is actually a Russian citizen named Igor Girkin) was left scrambling to explain what was happening in terms that made military sense, and he did the best he could.

      This may be telling President Poroshenko what he most wants to know, which is whether or not this week’s events really constitute a “turning point” in the military conflict in eastern Ukraine. The answer appears to be “yes”: the morale of Strelkov’s troops (many of whom are Russian “volunteers”) is cracking as they realise that the motherland is really not going to send its own army into eastern Ukraine to help them out.

      There never was mass support for the pro-Russian “revolution” in Donetsk and Luhansk provinces in April. Most people there speak Russian, and they were worried about where the real revolution in Kiev was taking the country even before Russian propaganda started telling them that “fascists” had seized control of the country and wanted to kill them. But they didn’t actually want to join Russia.

      When the real revolution began in Kiev late last year, huge crowds of unarmed civilians stayed on Independence Square day and night for months. Only in the final few days did former president Viktor Yanukovych order his police to start shooting, and only then did firearms also appear in the crowd. Things happened very differently in the east.

      There were no huge crowds when pro-Russian rebels seized power in the east, no lengthy occupations of public squares by unarmed civilians, certainly no violence by government forces. Heavily armed groups of masked men just appeared in the streets and took over, declaring that they were creating revolutionary regimes to save the people from the “fascists” in Kiev.

      Civilians in the east were sufficiently worried about the intentions of the new government in Kiev that they did not come out in the streets to oppose this armed take-over, but they never came out in large numbers to support it either. This was more evident than ever on Wednesday, when Pavel Gubarev was promising to defend the “whole perimeter” of the city and drown the Ukrainian army in blood.

      Donetsk has almost two million inhabitants. The crowd at Gubarev’s rally was a couple of thousand at most. Donetsk will not become a new Stalingrad.

      So, at the risk of tempting fate, a prediction: the fighting in eastern Ukraine will not go on for months more, and there will be no heroic rebel last stand in Donetsk or Luhansk. The Ukrainian army is already encircling both cities, but it will not launch a major assault on them either. It will just keep the pressure up, and the rebel forces will quickly melt away.

      The Russian “volunteers” will be allowed to go home, and local men who fought alongside them will be amnestied unless they committed some horrendous crime. Civilian refugees (no more than 3 percent of the local population) will be back in their homes quite soon.

      Western countries will repair their relations with Moscow as fast as possible, since they do not want a new Cold War. But Ukrainians will not forget that Russia seized Crimea and sponsored an armed separatist rebellion in their eastern provinces. President Vladimir Putin has managed to turn Russia’s biggest European neighbour into a permanent enemy.

      Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.


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      Kot Begemot

      Jul 9, 2014 at 6:18pm

      "How desperate became clear on Tuesday when Strelkov’s troops all headed south for the relative safety of Donetsk city."

      Escaping an encircled and exhausted town of Sloviansk in full force and taking over a large and important city of Donetsk (the 'capital' of the region) looks more like a strategic move rather than an act of desperation.


      Jul 9, 2014 at 8:46pm

      As regards to the Ukraine, Gwynne Dyer again shows he is a pro-western sycophant. He is critical of Putin and Russia but he avoids judgement on the violent ethnic cleansing of the eastern Ukraine by the Kiev regime, the behind the scene incitement to violence by the US and the anti-Russian paranoia of Western Ukraine and NATO. For a clearer picture of the Ukraine situation readers might wish to read less biased political pundits such as those found on Counterpunch or Information clearing house.

      Barry Smart

      Jul 10, 2014 at 2:05am

      Your correspondent Gwynne Dyer is as independent as Victoria Nuland who sponsored this mess. No doubt Gwynne can rationalize the massacre in Odessa and the killing of women and children as co-lateral damage. I live in NZ but even so i can recognize Genocide and ethnic cleansing when I see it. The people running the show from Kiev look like Nazis, they march under Nazi banners, they laud Stefan Bandera a collaborator, as a national hero and they kill like Nazis.


      Jul 10, 2014 at 8:47am

      The reality is that the Ukraine has a government which has avoided racism. One of the state governors is a Jew by the name of Ihor Holomoitz. What the Ukrainian government, which is democratically elected, is doing is crushing a Russian-directed threat to its authority. So what's wrong with that? What Putin has done is protect Russian interests by seizing the Crimea to protect the naval base there. And I think he's made it clear to the Ukrainian government that NATO membership is a no-no. If that earns Ukrainian enmity, so be it. But membership in the EU is not a no-no. The Ukraine has the right to decide its economic future. What would you prefer an economic union with the likes of Belorus? The CounterPunch crowd got this one wrong. Dyer didn't.

      Ben Sili

      Jul 10, 2014 at 11:21am

      Strawman: of course russophone Ukrainians did not want to be attached to Russia. they just wanted their rights recognized and indeed were worried by Kiev's junta.
      Lie: Dyer claims that "fascists" is way too strong qualifier for those Kiev Junta, manipulated by Washington and manipulating Porochenko. Really? Anyone curious can find countless YouTube videos of the supporters, their leaders Praviy sektor and Svoboda, Farion, Iarosh, Parubiy etc... and verify for themselves their discourse and the values these people want to impose.
      Such blindness is no excuse for a poorly researched article and its disgusting bias.

      Arctic Ron

      Jul 10, 2014 at 11:31am

      Dyer's conclusion was fairly evident in March. This attempt at old world geopolitics on the part of Russia has alienated most of the countries on their western frontier. Putin and his crew can play games with the gas supply but the utility of that lever will diminish over the next five years as Ukraine develops new relationships with Europe. Despite what the whiners claim the criminals are not the US or Europe but Russia's thugs and henchmen who have blindly and blandly tried to create a Blankan style crisis (the same way their Serbian clients did in the 90's). Fortunately there weren't enough useful idiots willing to kill on behalf of ex-Soviet autocrats to make it happen.

      gwynnes fiction

      Jul 10, 2014 at 11:47am

      Love the fiction buddy, keep up the hard work but seriously folks he was in the military and when you're in that club , you stay in that club, FOREVER. He speaks for his master therefore you cannot hold judgment as he does not know any other truth then what is told to him from above.

      A bug that lives a whole life in a carpet only knows about the carpet.

      JJ Joseph

      Jul 10, 2014 at 1:32pm

      "Putin has managed to turn Russia’s biggest European neighbour into a permanent enemy"

      Russians have never liked Ukrainians. Ukrainians are unpredictable, harsh, and ethically challenged. Ukrainians may speak Russian, but they're not friends. Ukraine won't be a big loss for Russia.

      The big challenge for Russia now is replacing all the Ukrainian inputs to the Russian economy like diesel and airplane engines, tanks, bombs, trucks, that come from east Ukraine & Kiev. If Ukraine wants to try to sell Antonov airplanes to America, they're welcome to try, but good luck to that! Russian-speakers in east Ukraine know that their time is up. What's coming is Ukrainian ethnic cleansing. It's not going to be pretty, but the media will succeed in covering it up. Hardly anyone will notice.


      Jul 10, 2014 at 8:06pm

      There will always be those who would rather believe the 5% because it's the answer they want to hear, than the 95% who believe because that's just the reality of the situation given the evidence which supports that belief.

      To JJ Joseph: Not too general on what Ukrainian people are like, eh? That 46 million people are "unpredictable, harsh, ethically challenge" is simply fiction created by your prejudice & bigotry.

      How is it that Russian-speakers and Ukrainian-speakers in Ukraine have managed to coexist peacefully since the fall of The Soviet Union until Mr. Putin illegally took Crimea?

      What I'd like to know is who is it that is going to pay the new rebel recruits? Mr. Boridai is now offering to pay them. I find it of great interest that both he and Denis Pushulin have made trips to Moscow in recent months, Mr. Boridai was there this week, so again... where is this money coming from? Money they've looted from banks & businesses in the towns and cities they've overtaken? Oligarchs? Or, Mr. Putin, himself (all the while claiming he knows nothing)?

      President Poroshenko is a savvy businessman and more than familiar with men like President Putin. He didn't become a Billionaire by chance and he wanted the job as President. He will use his talents and abilities to bring Ukraine freedom and prosperity, in spite of Russia.

      Uncle Jack

      Jul 10, 2014 at 10:45pm

      The latest joke from Russia:

      Putin, who has divorced his wife of more than three decades, has a blonde girlfriend, half his age. All true so far,

      And here comes the joke:

      "Putin decides to travel incognito with his "partner" to Greece, using fake passports.

      A border agent, who does not recognise him, asks for the name and afterwards follows with the obvious question:


      "No answers Putin, only a short vacation!!"