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Up Front

Kyiv’s Atrocities? A More Nuanced Look at the Ukraine Crisis

Steven Pifer

Stephen F. Cohen published an article in The Nation on July 1 entitled “The Silence of American Hawks about Kyiv’s Atrocities.” It makes for an interesting read, though it places virtually all the blame for the distressing crisis in Ukraine on the Ukrainian government and Washington. That situation, however, cannot be painted in the black and white strokes used by Dr. Cohen; there are many shades of gray. I try to see the grays, though I should note at the outset that Dr. Cohen would likely lump me with the hawks. Much of his article, however, paints a black and white picture that omits crucial context and detail. Some examples.

Dr. Cohen’s article equates the actions of the armed separatists in the eastern Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk with the protests on the Maidan Square in Kyiv. The Maidan demonstrations were overwhelmingly peaceful until the police assaults on February 18. To be sure, buildings around the Maidan were seized (and one rented)—mainly to provide shelter given the bitter winter temperatures. And a small group of protestors (which included ultranationalists) started clashes with police in mid-January, but their number never amounted to a small fraction of the peaceful demonstrations a couple of blocks away.

What took place in Donetsk and Luhansk was different. There were no peaceful demonstrations on the scale of the Maidan. Instead, armed separatists seized local administration and police buildings. In some cases, they were led by “little green men”—the term Ukrainians applied to the soldiers in Russian-style combat fatigues but no identifying insignia who seized Crimea (later acknowledged by Vladimir Putin to have been Russian troops). Equating such activities in black and white terms with the Maidan is a very long stretch.

I agree with Dr. Cohen about the horrific nature of what transpired in Odessa on May 2, when dozens perished in a trade union building fire, though I would not be so quick to draw analogies to Nazi exterminations. There should be a full investigation, and the Ukrainian government would be wise to invite forensic experts from countries such as Finland to participate.

But Dr. Cohen’s description of the Odessa tragedy omits relevant information. First, by most accounts, the clashes began when a pro-Russian group attacked a peaceful pro-unity parade. Second, many reports say that some in the pro-Russian group used firearms. Third, while there is no doubt that pro-Ukraine demonstrators threw Molotov cocktails into the building, there is also evidence of people on and in the building with their own Molotov cocktails. Finally, once the fire broke out, there is footage of some from the pro-Ukraine group helping people escape the burning building. None of this justifies the inexcusable attack on the building, but it paints a grayer picture than Dr. Cohen’s account.

Dr. Cohen’s narrative of the government’s anti-terrorist operation implies that Kyiv started the conflict in the east. In fact, beginning on April 6, armed pro-Russian separatists seized numerous buildings before Ukrainian military and security forces began their operations on April 12. He suggests indiscriminate attacks on civilian population centers when most Ukrainian military operations appear aimed at a foe who is well-armed, including with tanks and sophisticated surface-to-air missiles (as witnessed by the shoot-downs of Ukrainian military aircraft, including a transport plane with 49 aboard).

The role of the Right Sector organization is of concern, and Ukraine’s government should act to disarm it. Some in the West, however, believe that Svoboda has made an effort to move away from its uglier roots. Dr. Cohen is right about their relatively large representation in the cabinet. But his account does not mention a major reason for that: the Party of Regions and the UDAR party, the first and third largest factions in the Ukrainian parliament, chose not to take positions when the new cabinet formed in February.

Dr. Cohen’s narrative too easily dismisses what the May 25 presidential election says about support among the Ukrainian people for right-wing ultra-nationalists. The leaders of Right Sector and Svoboda together garnered less than two percent of the vote. Even that overstates their support: armed separatists prevented voting in much of Donetsk and Luhansk, where 14 percent of the Ukrainian electorate resides, few of whom would have favored the Right Sector or Svoboda leaders. Dr. Cohen suggests that “small, determined movements can seize the moment” to imply the ultra-nationalists command authority beyond their poll numbers. Perhaps. But could the same concern not be raised about the armed separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk, where polls have shown that most people wish to remain a part of Ukraine?

Dr. Cohen writes that the anti-terrorist operation can only be halted in Washington and Kyiv. By most accounts, Ukrainian forces significantly ratcheted down operations during the ten-day ceasefire that ended on June 30. It is not clear the separatists did. Surely they have some voice in whether a ceasefire can be made to hold?

Dr. Cohen lets Russia entirely off the hook, noting that, after the annexation of Crimea, Putin showed “remarkable restraint.” Even setting aside the seizure of Crimea—the most blatant land-grab in Europe since the end of World War II—it is difficult to describe Russian actions since then as restraint. Moscow over the past three months has sought to destabilize Ukraine. Among other things, it blocked Ukrainian exports to Russia; dramatically raised the price of gas it sold to Ukraine (to levels far above what Germany and Austria pay, despite their higher transit costs); kept tens of thousands of troops mobilized on Ukraine’s eastern border; and allowed fighters, supplies and equipment, including tanks, to cross from Russia into Ukraine. Restraint?

Dr. Cohen expresses concern that inflamed Russian elite and public opinion may force Mr. Putin to take stronger actions, including military intervention. That is indeed a concern, but his article could and should have noted why Russian opinion is inflamed: the one-sided Soviet-style propaganda campaign carried out by Mr. Putin’s own state media.

The situation in Ukraine is complex and gray shaded. There is plenty of blame to go around. But Dr. Cohen’s article fails to capture that and instead paints a misleading black and white picture that masks the more nuanced reality.

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