Just consider today’s news. The OSCE monitors sent to Ukraine, who were kidnapped on Friday in the Donetsk Oblast or Province by the putschist authorities who have taken over the provincial parliament building, have appeared in public. The German commander, Col. Axel Schneider, was forced to give a statement saying that the OSCE monitors were “guests” of the “mayor” of Slavyansk (a town in Donetsk Province), Vyacheslav Ponomaryov. Meanwhile, these “pro-Russian protesters,” as the BBC inexplicably referred to the clearly-well-trained and -equipped masked forces, seized the State television station in Donetsk. Combined with the seizure of the parliament, this is the standard definition of a coup d’état.
On Thursday, the Russians had conducted “military exercises” on Ukraine’s border, threatened “consequences” should Kiev use the army to restore order in the east, and a politician from Slavyansk turned up dead having been severely tortured and stabbed multiple times. Vladimir Putin has ceased even the pretence of conversation with Barack Obama.
The BBC’s error in labelling is more than a difference of emphasis; on it hinges the whole definition of the crisis. It is futile to pretend that the actions of the “protesters” in eastern Ukraine are some spontaneous uprising by a people desperate for annexation by Russia, having just witnessed the rule of terror and “disappearances” imposed on Crimea. Such information as is available suggests that even a majority of Russian-speakers in Ukraine—those in whose name Putin’s intelligence agencies orchestrate this mayhem—do not want to be part of Russia again. What we have here is what John Schindler, an ex-counter-intelligence officer at the NSA, calls “special war,” which he defines as “an amalgam of espionage, subversion, even forms of terrorism to attain political ends without actually going to war in any conventional sense.”
In the Donetsk area, which appears for the moment to be the centre of Moscow’s provocations, the actions of the people who have imposed themselves by the gun on the area look remarkably similar to the Kremlin’s playbook. The rounding up of journalists, for example, was how Russian forces began their campaign in Chechnya under Putin’s rule.
On Wednesday, the putschists kidnapped an American journalist, Simon Ostrovsky, and “mayor” Ponomaryov appeared in public to give a deranged statement. Ponomaryov flatly denied that Ostrovsky was a hostage, saying: “He’s a walking around. It’s just that we defined his place of stay”. From this double-speak, Ponomaryov moved on to show he was completely unclear-on-the-concept of free expression. Asked why he was “holding” Ostrovsky, Ponomaryov said: “So he wouldn’t put out a lot of provocative commentary”. Christopher Hitchens once wrote of meeting Gen. Rafael Videla—the former Argentina military despot, now in prison for, among other things, running rape prisons and then selling the children that resulted. Videla dismissed all questions of political prisoners by calling them “terrorists”. Asked about Claudia Grumberg, a quadriplegic journalist who could therefore not possibly be a terrorist, Videla said she must have been guilty of an “ideological crime,” which was much the greater threat to Argentina. Some of the uniformed men around him understood that he had made a terrific blunder in exposing this truth; Videla did not.
Ponomaryov rounded out this little speech with that other specialty of the Argentine death squad regime: antisemitism. He told the assembled press conference:
“[I]t turns out [Ostrovsky] is nevertheless a citizen of Israel. … [Y]our colleague from Moscow tried to explain that to me that he is a person with dual citizenship … Either he has American citizenship or he has Israeli citizenship. Or maybe it’s Ethiopian. Let them declare about him his rights from Madagascar or somewhere else“.
Perhaps it would be called oversensitive to say that Ponomaryov’s lingering over the question of citizenship of the Jewish State was evidence of bigotry but that Madagascar jibe should seal it: for the intended audience of neo-Nazis and ultra-chauvinist descendants of the Black Hundreds, it was very clear what was being referenced. This is the form the Putin dictatorship now takes: protean as it is, its appeal is to those who once marched to the slogan: “Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality“. Whilst it now seems that those fliers demanding Jews in Donetsk register or face deportation were not given out by Moscow’s proxies, it makes little difference: forces of that nature are now on the loose in eastern Ukraine and it is Moscow’s doing that they are there.
Like the anti-nuclear campaign of the 1980s in the West that needed only the lightest touch from Moscow to set in motion, this operation in Ukraine need not be all that heavy-handed—or not yet. Serbia managed to affix an air of fascism to Franjo Tudjman’s Croatia that never quite went away, and Russia’s effort with the Ukrainian far-Right should be seen in that light: Kiev is trying to get control of these fascistic militias not only because they openly threaten its politicians but because they are penetrated by Moscow. In an era when war is public relations by other means, Ukraine is reliant on Western good-will for its protection. It might have had precious little help—300,000 ready-meals is the extent so far—but Ukraine would be even weaker if the West completely turned on it, which it would if it was convinced the government was fascist. But the truth is that Russia can proceed even without removing the remaining protection extended simply by Western attention and diplomatic activity, it can still use Right Sector and like-minded forces: they need little direction to sow disorder and sectarian murder, but every little helps. Russia can then continue with this as a covert action or can claim the chaos as a cause for direct intervention. Ponomaryov is one among many to call for Russian “peacekeepers” to be deployed to keep the “fascists” at bay.
Concluding a trip in eastern Europe, Michael Weiss, editor of The Interpreter—which has been an essential source in following this crisis—said that the sense that we are on the eve of war is “palpable“. If the supposedly-pending new round of sanctions from London and Washington ever arrive, it will be much too little, much too late. From the “reset” onward, President Obama has shown weakness toward Russia; a belief that its differences with the United States were as a result of a misunderstanding because of a belligerent George W. Bush. This reached its crescendo last August when the President was outmanoeuvred by the Kremlin and stepped back from a commitment to punish Putin’s client in the Levant for gassing to death 1,400 civilians in a morning. After that, Moscow knew it had an open road to Kiev should it so choose.