“Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that 'my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.'” — Isaac Asimov
VALENTYN OGIRENKO / REUTERS Members of Right Sector during an anti-government rally in Kiev, July 2015.
When the conflict in Ukraine began in early 2014, a disturbing number of armed groups—from looting gangs to militias with ties to European white supremacy movements—sprang up from the chaos. Although the role and origin of those pro-Ukrainian militias has been hotly debated, one thing is clear: several years after the start of the conflict, the Ukrainian government has managed to stifle the independent armed groups fighting on its side. Its success offers lessons for other countries attempting to demobilize populations after a war.
At the start of the war in 2014, there were as many as 30 small armed groups made up of 50 to 100 people. This assortment quickly consolidated into five main militias: Right Sector, Azov, Aidar, Donbas, and Dnepr 1. These semi-independent groups absorbed most of Ukraine’s freelance fighters and small ethnic militias. Although each group had its own leadership, logistics, and funding, they had to negotiate access to the frontline with the Ukrainian government, and they depended on the regular army for artillery cover. Many of the volunteer fighters were internally displaced people from eastern Ukraine and Crimea, although some Russian far-right activists came to participate in the fight.
At the start of the war, when Ukraine’s standing army was weak and slow to mobilize, such groups were crucial to the defense of the territory. However, even from the start, there were major problems with their operations. They rarely coordinated with each other or the Ukrainian army on the battlefield or off. Furthermore, there was no legal supervision of their activities, as Amnesty International has repeatedly pointed out.
The simmering war in east Ukraine saw a large-scale escalation last weekend, with five Ukrainian soldiers killed and more than 20 wounded, after separatist militants tried to take over army positions.
While fighting is picking up on the front, Jake Hanrahan visited the separatist Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) to see how the breakaway region is trying to establish government, and to meet the people living under their rule.
The West has used everything from signals intelligence operations, espionage, fighter jet saber-rattling, and diplomatic standoffs to stem the rise of Russian influence around the world. These efforts are coming to a dangerous head in Ukraine — a classic Eastern Bloc proxy state — where the presence of NATO troops is driving tensions to Cold War-era levels.
As the armed conflict between the Ukrainian army and Russian-backed separatists enters its third year, VICE travels to the frontline to take a closer look at what international assistance really looks like for those caught in the line of fire.
At the top of the agenda during last week’s NATO Summit in Warsaw was Russian aggression against the West. In response to the ongoing conflict between Russian-backed separatists and the Ukrainian Armed Forces, NATO reiterated their support of Ukraine’s fight against Russian advancement in the east, and committed to a comprehensive assistance package.
But on the ground, the conflict rages on. Despite a Minsk ceasefire agreement, signed in 2014, and again in 2015, fighting continues to intensify along the contact line.
A recent spike in violence that included heavy shelling, mortaring, and small arms has made the past few months particularly bloody, with casualties becoming an almost daily occurrence. Despite a complete failure to implement any ceasefire, NATO insisted the Minsk agreement was still the way to go.
VICE News traveled to Avdiivka, the hottest point of contact in the conflict, where Ukrainian military and civilians have both lost faith in the so-called ceasefire and remain trapped in a brutal war.
During the course of the war in eastern Ukraine, hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers have been either captured as POWs or gone missing during the fighting.
During the battle of Ilovaisk in August 2014, Ukrainian soldiers became encircled by Russian regular soldiers and separatist fighters. After intense negotiations the Ukrainians eventually managed to secure safe passage to leave the town. However, that never happened. As the Ukrainians fled the town in their vehicles they were ambushed and slaughtered. It’s thought up to a thousand soldiers were killed and hundreds more were captured.
Many of these POWs were released over the course of the following week, however some were summarily executed and others still remain missing.
Families of the missing soldiers have had to endure a torturous and bureaucratic process to find their sons, passed from one ministry to another, with some families having to travel to rebel territory themselves to search for them. VICE News spoke with a British journalist, Lily Hyde, who has been documenting the efforts of families struggling to find their sons and with one mother who continues to wait for her son to return home, 18 months after he went missing.
Ever since Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine, NATO has focused on bolstering its defense and deterrence capabilities in central Europe. These efforts look set to pay off; at the alliance’s July summit in Warsaw, NATO is expected to adopt significant new initiatives to protect its eastern flank.
But the alliance risks coming up dangerously short on the threats that matter most to most of Europe and thus to NATO: terrorism and the ongoing influx of migrants. Especially in the wake of the Brussels and Parisattacks, if NATO fails to define a strategy for its southern challenges, it could slip into strategic irrelevance. There is precious time left before the Warsaw Summit to outline such a strategy.
NATO’s record in the Middle East and North Africa is mixed. Its approach has focused on building partnerships with regional powers. Its Mediterranean Dialogue—a forum that brings together Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Mauritania, Morocco, and Tunisia—has existed since 1994. Its Istanbul Cooperation Initiative, which includes four of the six Gulf Cooperation Council members, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, was created in 2004. Yet with the important exception of Arab participation in the 2011 air campaign against Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi, both forums have lacked practical substance.
The Failure of Western Restrictions Against Russia
After Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine in March 2014, the Obama administration responded with what has become the go-to foreign policy tool these days: targeted sanctions. The United States placed asset freezes and travel bans on more than one hundred people, mostly cronies of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and the EU targeted almost a hundred more. The amounts involved have been massive: Bank Rossiya, the Kremlin’s preferred bank, had $572 million frozen in the months after the sanctions were rolled out. Then, in July 2014, when Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine allegedly by Russian-backed forces, Washington responded with more severe sanctions aimed at key sectors of the Russian economy, including arms manufacturers, banks, and state firms. In an effort to hit the Kremlin where it hurts, the measures inhibit financing and technology transfers to Russian oil and gas companies, which supply over half of state revenues.
Considering the dire state of Russia’s economy, these sanctions might appear to be working. The value of the ruble has fallen by 76 percent against the dollar since the restrictions were imposed, and inflation for consumer goods hit 16 percent in 2015. That same year, the International Monetary Fund estimated, Russia’s GDP was to shrink by more than three percent.
In fact, however, Western policymakers got lucky: the sanctions coincided with the collapse of global oil prices, worsening, but not causing, Russia’s economic decline. The ruble’s exchange rate has tracked global oil prices more closely than any new sanctions, and many of the actions taken by the Russian government, including the slashing of the state budget, are similar to those it took when oil prices fell during the 2008 financial crisis. The sanctions have inhibited access to Western financing, forcing Russian banks to turn to the government for help. This has run down the Kremlin’s foreign reserves and led the government to engage in various unorthodox financial maneuvers, such as allowing the state-owned oil company Rosneft to recapitalize itself from state coffers. Yet the Russian government has been able to weather the crisis by providing emergency capital to wobbling banks, allowing the ruble to float freely, and making targeted cuts to the state budget while providing fiscal stimulus through increased spending on pensions. Even with continued low oil prices, the International Monetary Fund expects that growth will return to the Russian economy in 2016, albeit at a sluggish 1.5 percent.
Nor are the sanctions inflicting much pain on Russia’s elites. Although Prada and Tiffany are doing less business in Moscow, the luxury housing market is anemic, and travel bans rule out weekend jaunts to Manhattan, these restrictions are hardly unbearable. One target, the close Putin adviser Vladislav Surkov, has dismissed them as harmless. “The only things that interest me in the U.S. are Tupac Shakur, Allen Ginsberg, and Jackson Pollock,” he said. “I don’t need a visa to access their work.”
And when the sanctions are judged by the most relevant metric—whether they are producing a policy change—they have been an outright failure. Since the United States imposed the sanctions, Russia has not backed down in Ukraine, and there is no reason to believe that they will force it to do so anytime soon. In the meantime, however, the sanctions are harming U.S. economic and geopolitical interests. If Western leaders want to resolve the Ukraine crisis and meaningfully constrain Russia’s bad behavior, they should abandon their failed sanctions-centric policy and focus on other measures instead, such as efforts to aid Ukraine economically, obstruct Russia’s military modernization, and increase European energy independence.
Across Russia, from St. Petersburg in the north to Volgograd in the south, truckers are on strike. They’re angered by a new road tax that they say is rooted in corruption and will bankrupt them. And so, some 200 long-haul drivers have disrupted roads for over two weeks and have vowed to take their motorized protest to Moscow unless the Russian government removes the tax, fires the transport minister, and fines the oligarch Arkady Rotenberg and his son, whose company was selected to collect the new fees.
In the region and beyond, similar movements that were catalyzed by grievances about corruption and involved diverse groups of protesters, including young people, professionals, and blue-collar workers, have toppled other regimes, including that of Viktor Yanukovych in next-door Ukraine. In his increasingly authoritarian rule, Russian President Vladimir Putin has often denounced such revolts, presumably fearing the same fate. Now he must be especially worried. Past protests in Russia have typically been confined to Moscow and attracted mostly liberal elites, so dissent from a blue-collar constituency hailing from the heartland can’t be good news.
Although there’s a chance that this nonviolent civil resistance might catalyze broader action, whether it will produce a democratic breakthrough depends on the desire and ability of the truckers—and the others now joining them—to diversify their support base, tap into economic and ethnic grievances nationwide, and organize.
The Russian truckers’ resistance reveals growing unhappiness among ordinary Russians. Although the drivers insist that their protests are strictly
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Ukraine’s government has found a novel way of trying to deal with corruption. They’ve hired a number of foreigners to head government agencies, ministries and even an entire region, in the hopes that their status as outsiders will make them less susceptible to the temptation to award contracts to their best friends, who presumably are not in Ukraine. In the port of Odessa, Mikheil Saakashvili has been appointed governor of the city and the surrounding region. Saakashvili was once the president of Georgia, but fled the country when a new government pressed charges of corruption against him. VICE News’ Simon Ostrovsky spent a day with with the president-turned-governor to find out how he was handling his new job.