The more tense things become and the quicker events unfold in Ukraine the harder I find to sort out what is the information that non-specialists need analyzed. This weekend saw me go from expecting a full-blown invasion after seemingly coordinated attacks on the regional government buildings in Kharkiv and Donetsk on Saturday following similar attacks in Crimea the day before, to breathing a sigh of relief that these events did not get the kind of support Putin may have expected. Sunday’s protests in Russia against intervention, and not just in Moscow and St. Petersburg, were also heartening, for though they were small and some were arrested, they were more in line with popular opinion than the pro-intervention counter-demonstrations. We know this because a poll released Monday indicated that 73% of Russians opposed intervention. Couple that with far less support for Russian protection coming from Ukrainians, and a more robust response from the rest of the world and Putin has been forced slow down and pretend that nothing bigger was in the works.
My first inclination was to frame this information in a treatment of Putin, but others have done that well, and one more column describing how Putin has boxed himself in will not make it even more true than it already is. Instead, I think praise is in order to the Ukrainian people, the Ukrainian military and the new Ukrainian military. Ukraine has no Gandhi or Martin Luther King, no prophet of civil disobedience and non-violence, and yet the strength of the Maidan was its peacefulness in the face of persistent provocation. Nonetheless, there was a recognition by people with limited training in such things that concerted non-violence had to be disciplined and was essential because resorting to violence would provide justification for a crackdown. Indeed, arguably the violence resistance that began on 19 January ultimately did provide justification for the crackdown that cost about 100 lives, although, I think it is clear that by 18 January Yanukovych would have used violence on regardless. Further, we should not that when some finally succumbed to the temptation of violence in January, it came at a time when Yanukovych had tacitly admitted his weakness by not carrying out an all out crackdown on the peaceful demonstration.
Throughout that struggle Ukrainian protestors had a largely unseen ally in the Ukrainian army, which consistently refused to side with Yanukovych and go against their own people. Perhaps that reflects training Ukrainian officers have received via the NATO sponsored Partners for Peace program, or perhaps it simply reflected the awareness that the army itself was a fragile institution, and the realization that even attempting to carry out Yanukovych’s orders would not just break the army, but insure a civil war as brigades split up under the strain of being asked to follow commands that not all were prepared to obey. In time, we may get more insight about what motivated the Ukrainian military command to act as they did, but in the meantime, they and their soldiers have garnered further reason for praise by remaining largely loyal to Ukraine. This cannot be easy. They know if fighting breaks out they will lose, and they are not well paid, indeed the one major defector, the newly appointed commander of the Ukrainian Black Sea fleet, allegedly appealed to his underlings to follow him on the basis that they would be paid better. Yet, they have chosen to stand firm prepared to die, and defend themselves and their country if Russia opens fire. At the same time, their awareness of the dangers of escalating events by firing the first shot is clear, and their discipline is to be lauded, as should the new Ukrainian government’s commitment to that strategy, and this is understood by the Ukrainian people as a whole. Strikingly, the Right Sektor military group who were at the forefront of violent resistance to the Yanukovych regime have declared that they will not go to Crimea, a sign that they fully recognize the danger their presence so near Russian troops might pose to their country.
At this point I think it is clear only Putin and his allies in the Kremlin really wants war. The question is whether he can create a reason to justify it. So far thanks to Ukrainian resolve, that has not yet happened, and woe to him if he manages to manufacture his justification. Still for now though we are on pins and needles, but for Ukrainians and the world Ukraine is definitely not dead yet. Mr. Putin you have been warned.