Russia’s war in Ukraine has entered its fifth year. Skirmishes and killings continue every week but have long ago faded from the headlines – perhaps because they have reached “an acceptable level of violence”.
I was a teenager when I first heard that chilling term uttered by a British politician in 1971 referring to the low intensity war in Northern Ireland between the British Government and IRA terrorists. The conflict had erupted in 1968 and would last for 30 years with a steady stream of bombings and shootings leaving a trail of dead and maimed children, adult civilians, British soldiers and Catholic and Protestant terrorists.
But, apart from occasional “spectaculars” killing and wounding dozens of victims, the violence seemed to barely register with Britons on the mainland. The deaths of a couple of British soldiers in Belfast sometimes made just a few paragraphs in the newspapers. Many in Northern Ireland understandably felt forgotten as if the rest of the world had become bored with their ghastly situation.
The then Home Secretary Reginald Maudling even declared the conflict was at “an acceptable level of violence” – which many took to mean that London had given up on trying to end the killing and was resigned to keeping it within reasonable parameters.
The Russians invaded, then annexed, Crimea in February 2014 and by spring had stirred up conflict in parts of eastern Ukraine as a pre-cursor to snatching more Ukrainian territory. Fighting flared with large battles, which sometimes saw hundreds dead in a day.
It was confirmed today that Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down by a Russian military unit over Eastern Ukraine in 2014, leaving 298 people dead.
But by the autumn of 2015 a parlous ceasefire called the Minsk Agreement depressed the death rate dramatically. Ukrainian soldiers and civilians still died every week. But they died in dribs and drabs instead of job lots. Press attention shifted to the mass slaughter in Syria and many Ukrainians felt their country’s conflict plight had been consigned to the back burner in the way the people of Northern Ireland must have though with “troubles” simmering away at an acceptable level of violence. Acceptable as a cynical statistical model unless, of course, one of your relatives or friends featured in that week’s statistics.
So it was fitting that Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, who shattered the postwar world order by invading and sparking conflict in Ukraine marked the ignominious anniversary last week (May 15) by opening a bridge connecting Russia with occupied Crimea.
Putin himself officially inaugurated the bridge, hailed as Europe’s longest, by driving the first vehicle to make the 19 kilometer journey from Russia across the Azov Sea’s Kerch Strait.
Known for his “Village People” propensity for dressing up in tough-guy costumes – he’s previously appeared as an air force pilot, biker, rally driver, diver and hang-glider – a Truckin’ Putin, wearing jeans and wind-cheater jacket rolled into the occupied Crimean peninsula.
However, as he purposefully shifted the gears of his big truck, it must have been difficult for him to maintain a smile when he considered that the bridge, far from being a monument to martial triumph, is a stark symbol of the Kremlin’s failed plans to rebuild a new Russian empire.
After seizing Crimea, Putin tried to snatch a huge crescent of Ukraine from its eastern borders, sweeping south and to its western frontiers. That would have created a land corridor from Russia to Crimea, which received most of its utilities, including water, food, fuel etc by road and rail from the Ukrainian mainland.
But that didn’t happen because, to Moscow’s astonishment, vastly outnumbered Ukrainian volunteer battalions managed to hold back pro-Russian forces and limited them to occupying a portion of the country’s eastern Donbas region.
Most of the world does not recognize Moscow’s annexation of the peninsula and has stopped trade with it. Everything to keep Crimea going had to be expensively brought in by ferry or plane from Russia so that the cost of living soared for those on the peninsula. Tourism, a vital slice of Crimea’s economy, crashed.
So the bridge became an obsession for Putin who devoted billions of dollars to the project and called the structure “a miracle” when it was completed six months early.
The EU, US, Canada and many others condemned the bridge as an attempt to tighten Moscow’s illegal occupation.
Despite the hoopla surrounding its “opening”, the bridge, Potemkin village style, isn’t very useful yet as the roads leading up to it on both the Russian side and in Crimea won’t be ready until at least 2019. Ukraine’s foreign minister, Pavlo Klimkin, tweeted: “Both ends of the bridge lead nowhere.”
In similar fashion the Minsk Agreement, intended to bring peace to eastern Ukraine, isn’t going anywhere fast either. It calls for not only a ceasefire but also for the withdrawal of Russian troops and pro-Moscow forces from the occupied areas, return of control of all its borders to Ukraine, and elections for a political arrangement in the region that reflects the interests of the local population, many of whom are ethnic Russians.
There has only been one day without fighting since the agreement was signed in 2015 and the rest of its provisions have stalled because Moscow’s armed forces – whether regular or Kremlin-armed proxies – remain in the occupied Donbas area and control the Russian-Ukrainian border.
Kurt Volker, the US special envoy charged with trying to help settle the conflict, was not very optimistic about the future as he hasn’t heard from his Russian counterpart for more than three months since floating a plan to bring in UN-mandated peacekeepers to control both sides of the conflict line and create the conditions for bringing normality back to the region.
Volker said he has not seen any signs that Moscow is willing to engage “seriously” to resolve the conflict despite the fact it has nothing to gain from continuing it. “There won’t be recognition of territory taken by invasion and Moscow will only suffer more in terms of sanctions and lost lives”, he said.
Volker recommended, after his first visit to the front lines last summer, the US supply Ukraine with Javelin anti-armor missiles and earlier this month 210 Javelin missiles and 37 launchers, arrived in Ukraine, something which has enraged the Kremlin.
The arrival of the state-of-the-art Javelins won’t cancel out Russia’s vast advantage in men and material over Ukraine, but will even up the odds and has boosted morale considerably.
He hopes that Putin, after being inaugurated earlier this month (May 7th) as Russia’s leader yet again, might feel confident enough to make “a constructive response” to the UN peacekeeper plan.
But he’s not holding his breath and said if Russia continues its adversarial course the US and other western countries will continue to stand by Ukraine as he believes that is necessary to “re-establish the fundamentals of the world order”.
He said “Russia has torn up the rules as in the case of Ukraine and that has very injurious consequences.” If Moscow behaves aggressively in Ukraine without being penalized, what’s stopping it from doing the same elsewhere?
Meanwhile the violence at “acceptable levels” continues. Another two Ukrainian soldiers were killed and four wounded on Monday.