Ukraine a ‘frozen conflict’, not a cold war
Twenty-five years after the Berlin Wall fell and communist regimes collapsed across central Europe, Ukraine is being torn apart by a new East-West rivalry
A boy thows an egg at an image of Vladimir Putin in Kiev in May. Photographs: Sergey Gapon/AFP/Getty
Ultranationalists march towards Independence Square in April . Photograph: Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty
Last year ended with Ukraine on a knife edge. Much has changed since, but the country continues to tumble from revolution to rebel insurgency and into the heart of a “new cold war”.
Hundreds of thousands of people greeted 2014 on Independence Square, or Maidan, in Kiev at a concert that screamed defiance at President Viktor Yanukovich, his government and his Kremlin backers.
The cocktail of celebration and determination was heady, as people hailed the solidarity of the protest camp on Maidan and similar rallies around the country, and vowed to press on until Yanukovich and the whole political elite were gone.
Many felt joy and optimism at overcoming fear and apathy to challenge a corrupt clique that wanted to protect its own power and Russia’s interests rather than make the turn to the EU that polls showed most Ukrainians desired.
But amid the fervour was a fear that it would all end in bloodshed.
The protests began when the president rejected a historic association deal with the EU in November. It became a mass movement when riot police brutally beat student demonstrators on Maidan and, in December, launched an abortive night-time raid on the camp.
The Maidan encampment survived on enthusiasm and food, firewood and warm clothes collected and distributed by an army of volunteers. Away from the square, however, activists were frequently harassed and sometimes viciously attacked.
As January wore on, Yanukovich moved to strengthen political and economic ties with Russia. His allies in parliament passed laws that effectively banned all public protests, taking Ukraine down a path towards authoritarian rule.
Yanukovich was turning the screws, with Russian support, but opposition leaders failed to offer any clear plan to remove him before elections scheduled in 2015 – by which time many Ukrainians feared they would be living in a dictatorship.
Radical groups on Maidan took the initiative against riot police, blocking Kiev’s government district, and fighting erupted. On January 22nd what Russia calls a fascist coup led by Ukrainian ultranationalists claimed its first two victims: an ethnic Armenian and a Belarusian.
Five weeks later Yanukovich, his family and closest allies were on the run, fleeing Kiev and quickly finding refuge in Russia, after sniper fire killed more than 100 people around Maidan.
Erstwhile opposition leaders never did control the revolution. They now found themselves in charge of a country in collapse, its economy crumbling and Russian troops fanning out across Crimea in support of local separatist politicians.
Ukraine’s troops, outgunned and fearing full-scale Russian invasion of the country, surrendered Crimea without firing a shot. After a referendum rejected by Kiev and the West, Russia formally annexed the peninsula on March 21st.
Problems were only just beginning for Ukraine’s new leaders, however.
In April, unrest gripped eastern regions, where support for the revolution and the West were weakest and ties with Russia strongest. Police, officials, businessmen and criminals who thrived under Yanukovich feared losing power and being jailed, and they did their utmost to undermine the new authorities.
They found some support among easterners, who were bombarded by Russian television propaganda claiming that Ukraine had been taken over by ultranationalists who threatened the rights and even the lives of Russian speakers.
Defying Kiev’s often hapless “anti-terrorist” operation, separatists who had seized government buildings in eastern cities held an independence referendum in May.
They claimed the results gave them a mandate to split from Ukraine, but Moscow ignored their request to follow Crimea into the Russian Federation. Instead the Kremlin has fed the insurgency with fighters and heavy weapons – including, the US believes, the missile that downed a Malaysian airliner in July.
At the time of writing, the conflict has killed more than 4,300 Ukrainian soldiers and civilians and displaced about a million people; the government claims its forces have killed about 8,000 rebels. Fresh efforts are being made to strengthen a September ceasefire deal that reduced but failed to halt bloodshed.
Snap elections have given Ukraine a strongly pro-EU parliament, government and president, and the EU and US have promised to help them through the challenges of the insurgency, confrontation with Russia, and deep economic turmoil.
After the wall
Twenty-five years after communist regimes collapsed across central Europe, Ukraine is being torn apart by a new east-west rivalry.
Moscow views US and EU support for the revolution, and subsequent sanctions against Russia, as part of a grand plan to shrink Kremlin influence. The West counters that it is simply defending Ukraine’s right to choose its future.
The sanctions are shaking faith in Russia’s stability and fuelling capital flight, factors that compounded sliding oil prices to send the rouble and Moscow’s stock markets plummeting in value.
In his state-of-the-nation address this month Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, portrayed his country as besieged by foreign foes who are desperate to stop it recovering its rightful place as a world power. He promised that they would fail.
Putin insists that Russia is not interfering in Ukraine, while also claiming the right to protect Russian speakers there and pledging to prevent Kiev “destroying” its critics in eastern regions.
Analysts believe Putin is determined to wreck Ukraine’s new order to prevent it moving firmly into the western orbit, to preserve Russia’s “buffer” against Nato states, and to discourage Russians from trying anything like Maidan. But how far dare he go to make Ukraine fail?
Putin appears to have no interest in annexing economically depressed eastern Ukraine, given its cost to Russia in state subsidies and tougher sanctions.
Russia appears to be locking the region into a “frozen conflict”, by which it denies responsibility for rebel actions, and claims to be an honest peace broker, while holding levers that can destabilise Ukraine at any time.
Next year Putin will test a divided EU’s resolve to maintain sanctions and remind the US that it needs Russia to make progress with Syria, Iran and North Korea.
In parts of the east, many people blame the new leaders in Kiev for the bloodshed. But across most of the country, another message resounds: that by fomenting war to stop Ukraine escaping his grip, Putin is creating a nation more united – and determined not to be Russian – than ever before.
Lightning strikes twice Malaysia Airlines’ tragic year
Two aviation disasters this year will be remembered not only for their strange and terrible circumstances but also for the fact that they struck the same airline.
Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, vanished on March 8th. Despite an enormous search, no trace has been found of the Boeing 777 or the 239 people on board, most of them Chinese.
The flight crew last spoke with air traffic control less than an hour after take-off, and investigators believe crucial tracking systems were then deactivated and the plane diverted way off course; no distress call was received.
A satellite detected the last automated signal from the plane over the remote southern Indian Ocean, and international groups co-ordinating the search believe it came down more than 1,000km off the west coast of Australia.
About 160,000sq km of ocean have been scanned and almost 7,000 square kilometres of ocean floor surveyed by sonar; the latest computer models of ocean currents make the Indonesian island of Sumatra the most likely point of landfall for any debris.
On the afternoon of July 17th, flight MH17, from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, disintegrated at 33,000ft over eastern Ukraine. The flaming wreckage, and the 298 people on the Boeing 777 (193 of them Dutch), crashed down in farmland and villages controlled by Moscow-backed rebels.
Fighting around the crash site hampered efforts to recover first the bodies and, later, wreckage and other evidence, as horror at the disaster gave way to a furious exchange of accusations between Russia and the West.
Ukraine and the US believe the militants struck the plane with an advanced surface- to-air missile from Russia, pointing to many photographs that seem to show such a system in the region at the time, and to a rebel leader’s online boasts that his men had downed a Ukrainian military plane on the afternoon that MH17 crashed. These posts were immediately deleted when the airliner was identified.
Russia and the rebels claim that Ukraine brought down MH17 to discredit them. On the eve of last month’s G20 summit in Australia – which lost 27 citizens on MH17 – Russian state television broadcast “sensational photographs presumably made by a foreign spy satellite” that allegedly showed a Ukrainian jet firing a missile at the airliner; experts derided the images as crude fakes.
Anger at the handling of both disasters continues to rise among victims’ relatives.
Some think the hunt for MH370 was botched, that officials were dishonest and misleading, and that plans are afoot to end the search. The Dutch-led investigation into the MH17 disaster has been criticised as slow and disorganised, and calls are growing for a United Nations inquiry.
Malaysia Airlines was also upbraided for insensitive advertising (quickly withdrawn) urging travellers to name destinations on their “bucket list” and asking: “Want to go somewhere but don’t know where?”
After a singularly tragic year, the airline is being restructured, and Christoph Mueller – An Post chairman, director of Tourism Ireland and outgoing chief executive of Aer Lingus – has been named new executive director.