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Feeling the heat over Ukraine

  • September 3rd, 2014
  • Posted by EU Australia

Ukraine tanksThe last days of Summer saw little easing of the heat of conflict in Eastern Ukraine.


UkraineThe Ukrainian army, by slow steps isolating and wearing down the armed separatists groups backed by Russia, faced a sudden reversal this week in the field with the intervention of tanks from across the Russian border.

The Russian President, Vladimir Putin, averred he had not sent in troops to bolster the insurgency; he demanded a cycle of talks on the future government of the Eastern region of Ukraine, though disavowing an intention to attach it to Russia; and he rattled the sabre – mentioning he had nuclear weapons.

It went against satellite images and other clear evidence from the ground that Russian troops were involved in the new incursion.

If not a full-scale invasion (as, for instance, the American ‘shock and awe’ campaign in Iraq, 2003), the United States declared it a clear breach of sovereignty. Some of the Eastern European allies, together with the national government in Kiev, declared it was a situation leading immediately to open war; and among other allies, in Australia the Prime Minister Tony Abbott called it an ‘invasion’.


The Summer months had seen mounting conflict developing into a humanitarian crisis for hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian citizens made refugees by the fighting around their own towns.

Arguments broke out on the relief convoy sent from Moscow, amid much fanfare in Russian mass media over its mission to save blood relatives – majority ethnic Russians in Eastern Ukraine.

The trucks rolled across the border without a nod to the United Nations or Red Cross agency meant to link up with them; the controversy then lost in the hubbub over the troops and armour following through across the frontier.


Petro P.The newly elected Ukrainian President, Petro Poroshenko (picture) (see EUAustralia Online, Weekend voting: EU and Ukraine, 27.5.14), has pushed his modestly trained and equipped army to take on the insurgency, announcing a general call-up and reiterating calls for outside help with arms.

Seeing them register their steady gains in battle, he has declared early parliamentary elections expecting to reduce the number of opponents to his rule, and has announced an application to join NATO.

He has been blunt against Vladimir Putin, sending representatives to talks set up in neighbouring Minsk, and begrudging concessions, but, on 3.2.14, declaring that they’d just made a peace accord. Other members of the government added the qualifying observation, that provisions offered by the Russian side, such as a prisoners exchange and withdrawals to form a demilitarised zone, were hardly those to be offered by a foreign government coy about its actual involvements.

Yet Mr Putin has agreed that there was agreement on  a new accord.

It became one more mercurial move, coinciding tightly with action in the West. (Not new; the NATO summit of November 2006 was put on at Riga in Latvia, just out of the USSR and just into the Western alliance; the Russian President objected, stirring speculation that he could even turn up as a hostile ‘observer’; see EUAustralia Online, NATO, ‘transforming itself’ …, 30.11.06).


The NATO Secretary General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, observed the alliance had already given in-principle agreement to Ukraine joining; some of the national governments were more equivocal about putting that into place right away, considering uneasily that an attack on any NATO member can be grounds for retaliation by all.

A summit of the North Atlantic Alliance, getting under way in Wales (Newport, Cardiff), 3.9.14, would be under some pressure to treat the recent Russian moves as serious provocation.

On his way there, President Barack Obama stopped over in Tallinn, Estonia, telling a media conference (3.9.14) the alliance was ‘poised to help Ukraine strengthen its forces’.

On the table also would be the formation of a rapid response force in case of any sign the incursions might spread to existing NATO territory.


EU flag movementAlready, at a weekend summit of EU leaders in Brussels, Eastern European leaders had voiced their anxieties about any idea of a roll-back to reclaim the former Soviet Union. That would most likely start in the historically vulnerable and bruised small republics on the Baltic, now members of the European Union and NATO both – Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.

The EU kept its powder dry on that occasion. It threatened intensified economic sanctions against Russia, which could affect key resources earnings.

Despite retaliatory measures already declared in Moscow (e.g. cutting of imports into Russia of Polish apples and Spanish oranges, and other agricultural products from elsewhere including Australia); economic isolation would be an effective block in the middle term against the formation of any new ‘USSR’.

The old USSR imploded economically, much because of its isolation: far too much spending on armaments; inability to get capital investment from the West; incapacity to meet unexpected heavy costs to the state budget (the Chernobyl nuclear accident; the earthquake in Armenia), and a bad run of weak world petroleum prices. (On this aspect of the Soviet break-up, see Duffield L, Berlin Wall in the News …, Saarbrucken, VDM, pp 88-89, 102-3).

In response to current sanctions from the West (e.g. restrictions on overseas travel for senior state officials; withholding technology transfer for energy and other industries), embargoes on the sale of gas and oil to the EU this Winter, or cutting transit rights for Western airlines, stand to have uncertain impacts: if you don’t supply them, you do not get the money for them.

Patriotic Russians might have to wear extra inflation and recession as the price of backing their government’s team in Ukraine.


The heads of government meeting in Wales, dealing with the brinkmanship over Russia and the Ukraine, might have pause to remember the anniversary dates of the two World Wars (start of World War I 1914; Normandy landings 1944), being commemorated at this time. How will they rate against their predecessors in the lead-up to those wars, charged with keeping the peace, but up against volatile and reckless opponents?

NATO itself has extended its mission beyond the East-West alignment of the Cold War. It was expected this time to start winding up the multi-national command it established to coordinate operations in Afghanistan (ISAF – International Security Assistance Force), but (with the Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop in attendance) was moving to ordain new relationships with partners outside of its 28 member states.


Malaysia airlines logoThis week (1.9.14) the first of the bodies of 38 Australians killed in the shooting down of a Malaysian airliner over Eastern Ukraine, a Victorian couple, were flown home.

On 17.7.14, the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 was brought down by an anti-aircraft rocket while cruising at high altitude above the war zone; all 298 people on board were killed.

A ground recovery and investigation team including staff from the Netherlands, Canada, Malaysia and Australia was hampered getting access to the site, by continuing fighting, and by Russian backed insurgents occupying the area.

Eventually bodies recovered from the scene were taken to the Netherlands for identification.

The macabre and mystifying event was most reliably attributed to a Russian made weapon. Ukrainian authorities said they recorded radio traffic in which Russian insurgents admitted shooting the plane down in mistake for a transport aircraft.

Transit at high altitude overEstern Ukraine was permitted by civil aviation authorities and widely practised by airlines, though some had re-routed their flights to avoid the area.

Four months earlier (8.3.14), Malaysia flight MH370, also a Boeing 777, disappeared on a flight out of Kuala Lumpur to China. Out of communication, it is thought to have doubled back and crashed far South into the Indian Ocean, carrying 239 passengers and crew.


Since around the time of the violent break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, it’s been an open season on news media in war zones.

Most shockingly, is the crude beheading of journalists in front of cameras by Islamist terrorists; following the 2002 murder of Daniel Pearl in Pakistan in 2002, the two cases this year in Iraq: James Foley and Steven Sotloff.

One theory on the increasing attacks on media: Unlike previous times, terrorists and soldiers alike are today carrying their cell phones into the field, seeing the action in the news, seeing many journalists with their equipment in the field, and seeing no difference. It might be seen also as part of expanding hatreds, venality and barbarousness.

It has been rife in Ukraine, journalists among the civilians generally exposed to indiscriminate fire.

The International Federation of Journalists has this week raised the case of Andre Stenin a Russian reporter killed near Donetsk.

Here is the IFJ statement:

IFJThe International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) have repeated their plea for all sides in Ukraine to respect the rights of journalists and ensure they are not intimidated or harmed following reports that Russian journalist, Andrei Stenin, has been found dead.

Stenin, who worked for Russia’s state-run news agency, RIA Novosti, which is part of the Rossiya Segodnya holding, went missing in eastern Ukraine in August where he was working on a photo assignment.

Reports at the time said he was being held by an unknown group, with RIA Novosti citing an unidentified source that he had been taken by Ukrainian security services. Russia authorities opened a probe in mid-August into his disappearance.

However, it has now emerged that he has been dead for over a month. According to his agency, his car was found yesterday, Tuesday 2 September, burn out and with bullet holes on a road close to Donetsk.

“We condemn the appalling murder of the journalist Andrei Stenin and we call on Ukrainian authorities to carry out an immediate and thorough investigation to determine the circumstances of this case,” said IFJ President Jim Boumelha.

Julie Bishop, Minister for Foreign Affairs, and David Johnston, Minister for Defence, “NATO Summit in Wales”, (Media Release), Canberra, 3.9.14.

Duffield L, Berlin Wall in the News: Mass media and the fall of the Eastern Bloc in Europe, 1989, Saarbrucken, VDM, pp 88-89, 102-3.  See also, (12.9.14).

European Voice, Brussels, Ukraine: ‘permanent ceasefire’ agreed with Russia. [Seeking confirmation from Russia], 3.9.14.

IFJ, Brussels, (Media Release), Russian Journalist Andre Stenin murdered in Eastern Ukraine, 3.9.14.

Le Monde, Paris,  L’OTAN prête à réagir fermement face à la Russie dans le dossier ukrainien (NATO ready to respond strongly to Russia over Ukraine), 4.9.14., (4.9.14).

Le Monde, 13.8.14: En Ukraine, la bataille de l’humanitaire (Humanitarian aid battle in Ukraine); La popularite de M. Poutine a l’epreuve de l’embargo russe (Test for Mr Putin’s popularity over the Russian trade embargo).