The diplomatic fracas has been papered over, whereby US Secretary of State John Kerry seemed to gang up on Ukraine along with Russia over the question of the ownership of the Donetsk Airport. This propaganda coup by Moscow involved machinations in state media based on remarks by President Petro Poroshenko that he hoped to have Ukraine regain control of the Donetsk Airport again some day -- and the cornering of Kerry.
Vexingly, the result was this: Kerry denouncing Poroshenko for military moves -- never made or contemplated -- as a hypothetical, and merely because RT.com figured out how to hijack him for their news cycle:
That's to put a charitable interpretation on this fresh horror -- I actually think that left-wing, DSA-style politics from Kerry's youth (like Obama's) in which Moscow is always vaguely seen as "progressive" (and "enemy of my enemy is my friend") is more to blame for this than anything else.
(I can't imagine George Shulz or Cyrus Vance improvising a reaction like this because they would have been pre-attuned to the Kremlin's bad faith.)
What Kerry should have said is this:
"You seem to fail to realize that the Russian troops -- and they were Russian troops disguised though they may be -- that helped planted local fighters grab the Donetsk Airport was the original act of aggression and violation of Minsk here."
He could have gone further:
"Understandably, Poroshenko is asserting a long-term claim to what is indeed Ukraine's sovereign territory which Russia and Russian-backed militants have been exploiting the cease-fire to seize."
It's too bad he didn't at least say that he hadn't heard Poroshenko's remarks (rather than accepting a Moscow-spun hypothetical) or, if he had, that he didn't say instantly that this was clearly a case of aspiration rather than an intent to launch a new military offensive.
In the end, that's what State Department spokesman Rathke did say a day late and a dollar short in answer to pestering from a reporter (who sounded like a Russian -- once again I'll make my plea to the State Department to require that all reporters who ask questions at the noon day briefing must state their name and affiliation for the record. This is, after all, not a private off-the-record briefing but a public arena which isn't just for journalists but for the people of the United States).
QUESTION: New topic, about Russia and Ukraine.
MR RATHKE: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: So the last day, Secretary Kerry mentioned that United States and Russia continue to disagree on certain components or facts about Ukraine. Can you tell what are these components exactly? And the second question is: Also, Secretary Kerry said that United States is ready to put pressure on Ukraine to fully implement Minsk II agreements. So do you have any readout of meeting Secretary Kerry with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Klimkin? Thank you.
MR RATHKE: All right. Well, so first of all, with regard to the areas where we disagree, I think the Secretary spoke to this yesterday, but I’m happy to reiterate. We – as the Secretary told his colleagues among the NATO foreign ministers this morning, we consider this a critical moment for Russia and the separatists it backs to live up to the Minsk commitments, the Minsk agreement; that the OSCE needs to get into the conflict zones, as they are mandated to do in the Minsk agreements, and especially in Shyrokyne and places like it that I would highlight are beyond the ceasefire line on the Ukrainian side and where there is still – there are still attacks happening. That needs to stop. We need to see the full implementation of Minsk. We need to see the working groups that are called for in the Minsk agreement and under the trilateral contact group to begin working. And this – the separatists are not engaging constructively in those working groups. That needs to change.
And with – I would also highlight the need to withdraw heavy weapons systems verifiably. That includes Russian military air defense systems, command and control equipment. All of this is called for by the Minsk agreement – need to halt the flow of fighters into eastern Ukraine, establish control over the international border, need humanitarian access, the release of all political prisoners – all of these are things where progress needs to be made.
You made reference as well to Ukraine and the Secretary’s comments. I think that it’s important to point out that, as the Secretary said in answering that question, he said that the resort to force by any party would be extremely destructive. But I think we should distinguish between the question about Ukraine and President Poroshenko’s comments with relation to Donetsk, I believe, which was a speech, not the initiation of any action – there’s no impending offensive of that sort – whereas separatists on a daily basis continue to breach the Minsk agreement through their attacks.
I don’t have a readout of the meeting with Foreign Minister Klimkin. It happened just before the Secretary got on the plane.
QUESTION: But he didn’t – I mean, Kerry didn’t say it yesterday after talks with Lavrov about that only Russians or Russian-backed separatists breaking the agreements. He talked maybe about different details – I mean, just united actions from both sides. I mean --
MR RATHKE: No, I think the Secretary was quite clear about what we see happening on the ground in eastern Ukraine.
Perhaps, but in fact what we've seen here is the gaping hole at the center of the misbegotten Minsk process.
Cease-Fire as Land-Grab
Of course, it's a terrible thing when a president expressing determination to keep what is actually internationally recognized as his sovereign territory -- like Crimea -- is spun by cunning hybrid- warring Moscow into an act of "aggression" -- all while disguising its own aggression which of course was involved in taking over the airport, slaughtering the "Cyborgs," the brave Ukrainian soldiers who defended it -- and enabling the goons of the DNR.
As can be seen from this statement at State at the mention of Shirokino (Shyrokine), there is a macabre unreality whereby the US can scold Ukraine for fighting to keep Shirokino even as the "pull-back" of 15 kilometers from the front line to Shirokino merely becomes a way of grabbing territory -- literally.
"Beyond the Ceasefire Line on the Ukrainian Side"
Again, there's a subterranean implication here from State that "the Ukrainian side" in the battle can have its own territory only if they somehow manage to deter attacks on it yet not violate Minsk, and that the Russian/Russian-backed side can just keep inching forward and taking territory by force, in violation of Minsk or not (technically) -- and get to keep it as "theirs" with no repercussions.
That's awful, and it needs to stop, and the US has to spearhead the effort to make it stop instead of feeding it with things like this Kerry mishap over the Donetsk Airport.
Instead of just letting RT.com and what ever other Russian media get into these briefings, along with Matt Lee of AP, who generally asks provocative questions in opposition to Ukraine and a implied malfeasance on the part of the US for making Kiev its ally, there should be journalists asking:
"Do you or do you not recognize the Donetsk Airport as part of Ukrainian territory, yes or no, and if yes, how do you think this will be returned to the sovereign control of Ukraine when currently Russian tanks and "volunteers" as well as Russian-supplied local militants are holding this territory -- which they used Minsk to grab?"
This statement in fact also contains a muddle:
...that the OSCE needs to get into the conflict zones, as they are mandated to do in the Minsk agreements, and especially in Shyrokyne and places like it that I would highlight are beyond the ceasefire line on the Ukrainian side and where there is still – there are still attacks happening..
On the one hand the Russian-backed separatists are implicitly (although not openly) condemned for blocking access to OSCE monitors, as everyone who reads their public reports knows, and the Russian-backed attacks seemingly condemned, but on the other hand, "beyond the ceasefire line on the Ukrainian side" is invoked as a concept -- as if Russia gets to keep Shirokino merely because that is the place where the pullback from Mariupol landed after fighting there.
That's of course outrageous. The West thinks that Russia wants Mariupol and that it will "stand up" to Russia and not let it take it in order to keep the ceasefire, but in fact, the ceasefire is a salami-slicing activity, with Shirokino merely the latest slice that the West would not stop.
Since February, the Russian-backed militants have sliced off 28 salami pieces -- that is, 28 towns including not just Debaltsevo, which the West tacitly allowed Russia to take by giving it and its proxies a 3-day head start to battle for it and then condemning Poroshenko for not immediately pulling out his men who were killed in large numbers trying to hang on to it.
Let's go to the maps:
Towns seized by Russian-backed separatists before November 2014, according to Ukrainian government:
Towns seized since Minsk talks in September and Minsk 2 in February:
Yes, there are Ukrainian volunteers fighting in Shirokino, the much-discussed and much-loathed ultrarightist battalions are there precisely because Kiev has to keep one hand tied behind its back and not fight to keep what is actually its land. But they are under assault by Russian-backed forces and like other battles (see that list of 28 towns I just mentioned) it's not clear whether they will hold it.
That brings the Russians that much closer to Mariupol.
Shirokino of the Mind
What is left of Shirokino, can you see? There are said to be 60 old folks there and some OSCE monitors dodging the bullets. Here's a video of Right Sector -- yes, the ultranationalists, neo-Nazis are there holding the line because the liberals won't:
Here's those lying thugs from KP, Kots and Steshin, who claim that "Ukrainian forces shot on the OSCE" as if this occurred in a vacuum and was the last word on the affair when we can see even in that "expose" of the Right Sector that somebody is firing on them. Gosh, who could that be?
In fact, OSCE SMM itself said they were accidentally fired on and the Ukrainian soldier apologized. He wouldn't even be firing, of course, if the Russians weren't there firing themselves. THE CONTEXT IS that on May 11, Russian-backed militants fired on Shirokino with 120mm caliber mortars -- that caliber and that shooting were in violation of Minsk. This is the context that not only the pro-Kremlin Komsomolskaya Pravda leaves out -- at least they have the excuse of being Kremlin mouthpieces -- but that the State Department leaves out when it makes muddled comments about the need for the Ukrainians to pull away from Shirokino.
OSCE on a road in Shirokino -- where they can't get further.
Honestly, does the State Department REALLY think that it should be banging on Poroshenko over Shirokino (and the utter abstraction of the Donetsk Airport) as the problem and not condemn the ORIGINAL problem of the separatists firing on Shirokino to take it over? So Ukraine is supposed to stop fighting in a ceasefire, to enable Russia to take over this town literally within striking distance of Mariupol, the gateway to the land-bridge to the Crimea.
This is what exasperates me. I'm a minor non-profit blogger. Why am I saying this or a handful of Ukrainian and Russians and Western watchers on Twitter? The State Department hordes of planners and the Pentagon hordes of military experts should have crisp talkers for Kerry that say 'THE RUSSIAN-BACKED SEPARATISTS FIRED ON SHIROKINO FIRST WITH 120 MM MORTARS, SIR."
'THE RUSSIAN-BACKED SEPARATISTS ARE GOING TO TAKE OVER SHIROKINO AND BE THAT MUCH CLOSER TO MARIUPOL, SIR."
Is this so hard?
Of course, Kots and Steshin were MIA when the separatists shot on OSCE in Gorlovka in November and Kerry's talker-drafters didn't dig back that far in the weeds.
"Shirokino" is really now only a kind of Coney Island of the Mind, a place like this -- where an old man and an old lady had a farm with a cow -- and hopefully have fled by now.
And that's because there is what you might call a quaint OSCE belief that all the territory of the Donbass will remain under Ukrainian control and that it is merely a question of devising some form of local self-governance plan with a vague notion of "autonomy" that will end the grievances of the Russian-backed separatists -- oh, language or culture or style of institutions (Soviet).
It's as if issues like "local self-governance" - oh, language rules for the Post Office, shell-fishing hours and dates and alternate-side-of-the-street parking rules, as well as curriculum (absent figures like Vasyl Stus) or socialism/communism (nationalization of industry) are the only things that Minsk is about -- down the road, in the bright future.
In fact, the Minsk agreement has mainly been about a ceasefire with everything else that matters put off for hard negotiations some other day. Yet the ceasefire is never honored and increasingly threadbare, and the nature of the society that the DNR and LNR evil twins are installing increasingly clear (just as in Crimea, where arrests, kidnappings, expulsions, closing of media, etc. continue, with the Crimean Tatars deprived of their homeland).
But what was supposed to be about merely war-stopping and pulling back weapons beyond a line of contact with intensive fighting is now essentially the mechanism for Ukraine to cede land to Russia -- "peacefully," i.e. ostensibly with "less war" under a "ceasefire" than if there were a full-fledged campaign.
That's because direct negotiations over division of land are never held at Minsk, and even the list of towns where the "self-government" is supposed to take place has never been publicly issued although it is believed to be in a secret protocol.
The Yalta of Minsk
The great tragedy of Minsk is that there can't be such negotiations, however, because then these would not be peace talks about a ceasefire and elections, but the division of the winner's spoils like Yalta. (Paul Goble once described the problem as "From a Munich in Moscow to a Munich in Minsk.") The paradox is that in order not to lose any more territory such as Crimea, now occupied and forcibly annexed by Russia, Ukraine can't appear to negotiate for territory, it has to take part in a bad-faith ceasefire process that makes it lose territory anyway.
The reality is that the Ukrainians have had to take a series of miniature Yaltas via Minsk that mean they have lost control of something like 750 square kilometers of land -- again, 28 towns since February 12, notably Debaltsevo, the important highway and rail hub.
Minsk was not supposed to be negotiations about the ceding of towns and the outlining of a rump state. That's because the West has continued to maintain the fiction that it is about governance systems achieved by elections.
Not Free and Not Fair
That fiction should be ended and exposed now that we see the "People's Republics" have passed an elections law that indicates they have no intention of allowing any Ukrainian party that -- in their tendentious view -- has urged an economic boycott or supported the ATO or engage in some other vague sin (note that even the Party of Regions re-tread, the Opposition bloc, is essentially banned from DNR/LNR elections).
Poroshenko made very clear what he meant by elections -- freedom for parties to register, freedom of the press, and free access of OSCE.
But the "People's Republic" only means bringing the fake pro-Moscow clone, the ASCE, blocking the registration of parties and press. Whether the real OSCE has access to observe this mess is immaterial if party and media registration are controlled. Regrettably, OSCE headquarters has been far too promiscuous in promising to send observers and help with the mechanics of elections. This needs to be STOPPED and pressure put on the DNR/LNR to register opposition parties. What it should be doing instead is maintaining the kind of rigid posture it does with fake elections in Turkmenistan or Azerbaijan - that it will NOT send monitors because basic preconditions are NOT met.
They will never be met in the Donbass as we can see from a year of activity of the "people's militia." Just as they bomb volunteer offices helping the troops in the ATO and kidnap, torture and kill people as needed, the same can be expected from them if anything like real parties, press and civic groups got started in "the People's Republics" -- from which enormous numbers of people have fled -- and yes, fled into Russia, which is where they can get assistance, and where even under Putin, it's still better than life under Zakharchenko or Plotnitsky.
Remember the last few elections? Polls closed. Cars machine-gunned with election workers killed. Guns everywhere.
The problem is that the West is still playing Helsinki, while the Kremlin and its allies are playing Yalta. The US, France, Germany and the UK are in the 1970s reaching hands across the sea and across ideological divides in detente; Putin is in the 1940s divvying up Europe through brutal ideological warfare and military conquest.
In other words, the West continues to believe in the ability of political systems to be changed even if borders are hard and fast, and the East as epitomized by the Kremlin continues to see the acquisition of land through the change of borders as the way to ensure its authoritarian social system. That was why we had to have the Helsinki accords in the first place.
Remember Who Took the Donetsk Airport, Guys?
The Donetsk Airport debacle Kerry let happen was a field-day for Russian propagandists who could then pretend it was Poroshenko "pouring oil on the fire".
Why doesn't anyone think that it's Russia that "poured oil on the fire" by providing the tanks and troops -- like Chechen policemen -- and loads of ammunition to seize the Donetsk Airport in the first place, instead of Poroshenko who merely keeps helplessly affirming once-established Ukrainian territory -- kind of in the way that the State Department has to keep up the fiction that the WikiLeaks-stolen cables are really still its property by not allowing staff who wouldn't have had the level of classification to read them to access them openly?
The Donetsk Airport was not mandated to go to "the People's Republics" under the Minsk accords -- like Debaltsevo, it was never mentioned. Instead, there's the "secret protocol" -- echoing the secret protocol of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.
This is a horrible situation which likely has no solution but continued war and pretense at ceasefire until Russia achieves a change of government in Kiev -- by which time even more horrors like the loss of Latvia or Transnistria could be distinct possibilities.
Let's not forget the devastation of Mariupol in January when 30 civilians were killed by Russian Grads fired from Shirokino -- that's why Shirokino matters, hello.
The only possibility is if the West can pull itself together to make a very public list of ATO towns and explain that the ATO is there only because Russia's rebels are there. Don't like the ATO and its killing of civilians with shelling, not as a deliberate policy but as the inevitable fact of war? Then pull the rebels back so that they don't cause this. Can't manage to do that because Russia won't listen and you won't arm Ukraine properly? Then be prepared for continued sanctions and boycotts.
Then the least you can do is name and shame -- explain that there is a list of towns -- very specific towns that once had blue-and-yellow flags flying in them -- that the West -- like Crimea -- recognizes as Ukrainian territory where the principles of the OSCE agreements -- freedom for parties, media; freedom from arbitrary imprisonment and torture -- are supposed to prevail. And stick with that for the next 10 or 20 years as needed until Russia changes its government again. We had to do this before in the 1940s and the 1970s -- we'll simply have to do it again now.
Thus, the only cost-free solution the West has for a situation in which they're the only ones left playing Helsinki is to go on playing Helsinki to the hilt. Every day, they have to explain that the Kremlin is anti-Helsinki -- and repudiate Yalta.
Amb. Samantha Power has already the right rhetorical statements at the UN, rightly calling Minsk as a land-grab and not a peace-agreement. But that message has to go higher and deeper and be printed on posters and tweeted. The "before" and "after" of the map have to be shown relentlessly; the US position has to be to NOT monitor -- much less recognize--elections because none of the pre-conditions of freedom are met; the phrases "Russian-occupied Crimea and Russian-backed militants in Donbass" have to be endlessly repeated. Each time the Russian media engages in faux indignation over Ukrainian shelling of civilians -- faux because shorn of the context that Russia started the war -- Western diplomats have to keep showing the maps, condemning the land grab, and pointing the finger to where the real problem is.
Again, guys, please, this is very simple: If Ukraine is the one at fault for breaking the ceasefire, and Ukraine is somehow "more" or "equally" at fault for shelling civilians in violation of the ceasefire, HOW COME IT'S NOT UKRAINE THAT IS KEEPING THESE 28 TOWNS, BUT THE RUSSIAN-BACKED SEPARATISTS ARE GETTING THEM?
In that sense, Kerry's mission to Moscow was a failure and Amb. Power's rhetoric revealed as only something used to posture for allies and NGOs at the UN. Instead of condemning the actual land grab, Kerry limited himself to mentioning the case of Nadiya Savchenko and the vague need for rebels to pull back.
The Minsk process is a "Helsinki process" that shamefully, the strongest Western powers have allowed to be driven by the weakest elements -- the internal OSCE bureaucracy, tossed to and fro by the chair-in-office.
In fact, it's a miracle that even with the Serb chair currently, the OSCE SMM has still been able to call out emphatically that the separatists are blocking them and grabbing more land by force. This may not last forever and is currently buried in daily reports with technical language. The political point needs to be distilled in capitals and burned home not to Russia, which is incorrigible, but weaker allies inclined to lift sanctions and make compromises like Greece, Czech Republic, Austria and even Germany. All the diplomatic efforts should go not to pilgrimages to Moscow to get it to change, but pilgrimages to the weaker European capitals to make them more painfully aware that they are in mortal danger if they allow the Salami-Slicer to keep slicing in their continent.
Again, MAP please -- sure looks like all the ceasefire has done for Ukraine is make it start losing a war it was winning -- and lose territory to Russia maybe forever. Look in particular how the border areas in Lugansk were taken over!
Shamefully, the US under Obama has continued a fiction begun under the "liberal Medvedev" era that Russia "helps" with Iran and even "helps" with Syria which is no doubt the reason the pilgrimage was made to Sochi by Kerry. The world would be a better place if the US dropped that hopelessly discredited notion and behaved as if it realized that Moscow was the cause of problems like Assad and not the solution.
We can only imagine that this unseemly haste in going to Moscow to meet Putin on his turf after we essentially boycotted the Sochi Olympics and purposefully boycotted the war-mongerers' Victory Day was dictated by the need to solve the ISIS and Iran/Iraq crisis. But these won't be solved as long as Russia isn't really helping. Pretending that the sale of S-300s to Iran are not going to come about because they are costly to build or take time to build might buy some negotiation time but it will hardly help when Teheran has next-day delivery because in an authoritarian, mobilized state this could happen.
But before that next-day delivery is the next-day delivery of the Russian invasion in Shirokino.