Ukraine army defeat forces ceasefire, underlying political conflicts unresolved

Destroyed Ukrainian military hardware is strewn across the outskirts of Mariupol, reports the Guardian.

Click for more on the political situation in Ukraine

By Roger Annis

September 9, 2014 --  A version of this article was first published at Truthout, posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with the author's permission -- A ceasefire in the war in eastern Ukraine was announced in Minsk, Belarus on September 5. Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko made a simultaneous announcement in Wales, where he was a special guest at the summit meeting of the NATO military alliance.

A 12-point agreement was signed in Minsk by representatives of the Kyiv government and the Peoples Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk. Also signing were former Ukraine president Leonid Kuchma, Russian ambassador to Ukraine Mikhail Zurabov and Heidi Tagliavini of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. The text of the agreement has been published in Russian, here. An unofficial translation to English is here.

Terms include a cessation of military hostilities, exchanges of prisoners of war and release of people illegally detained, humanitarian aid and reconstruction assistance, and most importantly, recognition of political autonomy for the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in the south-east of the country.

The autonomy provision presumably obliges the withdrawal of Ukrainian military and far-right paramilitary forces from south-east Ukraine. But it’s not clear if that will happen, including from the important cities of Mariupol and Slavyansk.

An unresolved conflict

The ceasefire and the political autonomy that is recognised are considerable political achievements for the rebellion in south-east Ukraine. For the past four and a half months, the people of the region have resisted a brutal, military offensive launched by the governing regime in the capital Kyiv [or Kiev]. Only a few weeks ago, the military offensive was threatening to encircle the large cities of the region and crush self-defence forces.

On August 27, rebels launched a counter-attack along the Black Sea coast and at several locations inland, delivering what eyewitnesses are calling a “catastrophic” defeat of Kyiv forces.

Both sides in the conflict are militarily exhausted, meaning prospects for the ceasefire holding in the short term are good. But there are many reasons to doubt that it will hold over the longer term. The main reason is that the Kyiv side and its international backers are expressing little support for it.

NATO says it will proceed with more sanctions on Russia, showing no sign of relenting in its propaganda war claiming that Russia has “invaded” Ukraine.

An aide to President Poroshenko, Yuri Lytsenko, says that five NATO countries—the US, France, Italy, Poland and Norwaywill provide advanced arms to Ukraine. According to Associated Press, NATO’s response to that inconvenient news leak is to say that while the alliance itself will not send weapons to Ukraine, “individual allies may choose to do so”.

The fascist paramilitaries that comprise an important component of Kyiv’ military forces say they have no loyalty or commitment to the ceasefire. Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk is already speaking of reimposing “martial law” in south-east Ukraine at the first sign of breakdown of the ceasefire

On the other side, what is the reaction of the people of southeast Ukraine to the news? Many will be thankful if the bombardments from Kyiv stop. But they have endured five months of shelling, occupation and carnage brought upon them by Kyiv and it’s difficult for them to see any future in such a country. At least three leaders of the self-defence forces—Paul Gubarev, Igor Strelkov and Alexey Mozgovoihave expressed scepticism about the agreement. All this means that patience with the inevitable provocations and violations of the ceasefire by Kyiv and its fascist allies will be very thin.

An example of the political challenge for Kyiv is provided in a report in the Guardian on Sepember. 4 from the Black Sea port city of Mariupol, Donetsk region. The city has been under Kyiv’s control, and yet, “Many in Mariupol, especially among the workers of the city’s two giant steel plants, remain ambivalent towards the government in Kiev and some openly support the Donetsk rebels, suggesting the possibility of a messy battle if an assault on the city does take place.”

It’s doubtful that many of the 1 million or more people made refugees by the war will return home amid ongoing uncertainty, including the fact that the economic interests driving the war are still hell-bent on their course.

A stunning military setback for Kyiv

Details are only just emerging of the stunning military losses by the Ukraine army and rightist militias after self-defence forces launched a broad counter-attack on August 27. Tim Judah reports in the New York Review of Books on Sept. 5:

The scale of the devastation suffered by Ukrainian forces in southeastern Ukraine over the last week has to be seen to be believed. It amounts to a catastrophic defeat and will long be remembered by embittered Ukrainians as among the darkest days of their history.

Judah writes of seeing lengthy columns of tanks and other armoured vehicles utterly destroyed as they sought to retreat from advanced positions where they risked being surrounded.

The rebel victory and the ceasefire it prompted have come at an exceptionally high human cost on both sides. Exact casualty figures of Ukraine’s army and militias are kept secret. Kyiv’s figures speak of nearly 1000 military deaths and thousands of injuries since it launched its “anti-terrorist operation” in late April. But unofficial casualty figures are in the tens of thousands.

The war crimes committed by Kyiv have taken an enormous toll on civilians. Unable to capture large cities, the regime instead rained artillery on them over several months. Thousands of residents have died or suffered injuries. Many thousands of homes and apartments have been damaged or destroyed, as have factories and coal mines. Life support systems such as water, electricity, communication and medical services have been heavily damaged or destroyed. Among the targets of shelling have been schools and hospitals.

Shelling of Donetsk on Sept 4, 2014

Shelling of Donetsk on September 4, 2014.

The cities of Donetsk and Luhansk have seen about half of their populations of 1.1 million and 450,000, respectively, flee for safety. The latest figures on refugees by the UN Refugee Agency place the number of war refugees inside Ukraine at more than 260,000double the number of one month earlier. The agency cites Russian government figures that more than 816,000 Ukrainians have fled to that country this year.

The cost of reconstructing all that has been destroyed is in the billions of dollars.

A crazed war of austerity and authoritarianism

The war is an effort to crush resistance to the neo-conservative government that came to power in Kyiv late February 2014. The new regime embarked on an abrupt, about turn for the country, announcing it would sign an austerity, economic agreement with Europe and thereby throw the country’s industrial and agricultural production open to the vagaries of the international capitalist market. Another condition of any agreement with Europe (and the US) is deep cuts to social spending, which the government began to make months ago.

Industry in the east is heavily dependent on trade with Russia and especially vulnerable to “free trade” competition from Western Europe. This explains why anti-austerity rebellion took deeper hold there, compared to the more agricultural western Ukraine. The agreement with Europe was signed in June.

The austerity and related war drive is accompanied by harsh crackdowns on democratic rights. These include bans on media and internet expression, bans on political parties, notably the Communist Party of Ukraine, and a measure that gives police the right to shoot on sight anyone deemed to be a “separatist”.

Anti-war or anti-conscription protests by families and friends of conscripted soldiers have been on the rise ever since Kyiv imposed a third round of military conscription in July. A remarkable video interview with a Ukrainian soldier recently captured by self-defense forces describes the harsh conditions of service of conscript soldiers and the increasing disaffection with a war neither they nor their family and friends want.

Anger and bitterness by protesters and soldiers at having their worst fears about the war realised are going to reap a terrible whirlwind of recrimination against the government and other supporters of the war in the weeks and months ahead.

And the grim news is not only military. Ukraine’s national treasury is now largely dependent on loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other international financial institutions. Writing in Forbes magazine on September 5, Mark Adomanis says the cost of the war and the scale of the destruction it has caused guarantees that Ukraine will enter into financial default:

Even with substantial international assistance, Ukraine is going to owe a lot of money to a lot of different people and it isn’t going to have the means necessary to pay this money back.

It’s also worth taking a second to remember that the “reforms” demanded by the IMF primarily amount to harsh austerity measures (primarily cuts in gas subsidies) that are massively unpopular among Ukrainians and that will have a hugely negative impact on the population’s living standard, which isn’t very high to begin with. There’s a reason that Yanukovych and every other post-Soviet Ukrainian leader has obstinately refused to implement these reforms (Ukrainians hate them!) and it doesn’t take a particularly active imagination to devise a scenario in which the reforms backfire and ultimately cause the onset of yet another political crisis.

The government faces an acute challenge in preparing the country for winter. Its reckless confrontation with Russia has compromised the natural gas supply Ukraine was receiving from there, at cut-rate prices, no less. And its war has severely damaged coal production. Several months ago, the provisioning of hot water in many cities of western Ukraine was cut in an effort to conserve fuel stocks for winter.

Prior to the ceasefire, many of the vital forces of the rebellion said their aim was the creation of a new state. They call it Novorossia [New Russia], an historic term for the lands on the Black Sea coastline stretching from the present day Russian border westward to the city of Odessa (not including Crimea). But the prospects for realising that project are daunting. There is the military firepower of Kyiv to contend with, including its powerful, foreign backers. Political opinion among the varying populations of the region is not universal–only in Donetsk and Luhansk is there likely a majority support for secession. Even there, discontent with the political rule of the rebels has been considerable.

And contrary to the claims of Kyiv and NATO propagandists, Russia has never supported any version of a sovereign state in eastern and southern Ukraine. President Vladimir Putin expressly stated just weeks ago that a political settlement in south-east Ukraine should preserve the unitary state of Ukraine.

An entirely new element may come into the political picture as a result of Kyiv’s military defeat—a rise of opposition in western Ukraine to the austerity policies and ascendance of extreme, right-wing nationalism that propelled the war. Prospects for socially progressive alliances across the east-west divide would make a secession option less desirable or inevitable to the population in the east.

Russia’s role and interests

The dramatic change in the military balance created by the rebel offensive raises important questions about Russia’s exact role and designs.

Contrary, again, to the Kyiv and NATO propagandists, there is next to no evidence that the Russian army personnel played a direct role in the decisive rebel offensive. Rather, as openly acknowledged by rebel forces, rebel fighters received intense training during the past several months and there has been a significant influx of volunteer fighters from Russia.

Heavy weaponry obtained by rebels reportedly played a key role in the counter-attack, as did military protection of the border (thus facilitating the movement of rebels). Border protection is the source of NATO’s sharpest condemnation of Russia wants Russia to police and curb the autonomy movement, something akin to how Egypt collaborates with Israel and the US in restricting the movement of people and goods to and from the Palestinian territory of Gaza.

But Russia’s rulers have nothing to gain and much to lose in bowing to imperialism’s diktats. The Russian public strongly supports the rebel movement and expects their government to defend it.


Kyiv and NATO have repeatedly rejected Russia’s modest proposals to end the conflict, leaving no doubt that their goal is to crush the revolt. Such an outcome would leave Russia with even less leverage to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO. For Russia, Ukraine in NATO would be nothing short of catastrophic. Military aid to the resistance could forestall such an outcome.

The US and Britain, in particular, left Russia with little to lose from a shift to increased support to the rebels. Regardless of the restraint that Putin and foreign minister Sergei Lavrov voiced to rebel fighters, regardless of their statements that Russia had no territorial designs on south-east Ukraine and wanted the war settled, the Western press still demonised Russia and Western governments continued to ramp up sanctions. So Russia had little to lose from doing something that it was accused of doing anyway—covertly assisting rebel fighters to avert a harsh defeat.

An important consideration for Russia over what to do was the extreme vulnerability of Kyiv’s war effort. In July and August, Kyiv waged a relentless drive to cripple or destroy the rebellious south-east. Some territorial gains were made, but the large cities of Donetsk, Luhansk and Horlivka could not be taken. The army and its allied militias were poorly led and provisioned, and morale was sinking. By the middle of August, they were badly extended and highly vulnerable to counterattack.

Simultaneously, the economic situation in the country is rapidly deteriorating. A rebel counteroffensive could show the impossibility of a Ukrainian victory while encouraging domestic resistance to the anti-Russia, war course.

The fact that the ceasefire was signed before cities such as Mariupol and Slavyansk were retaken by rebel forces suggests the Russian government’s approach is to tip the military balance just enough that neither side achieves a decisive victory.

What does the future hold?

The ceasefire agreement leaves a great many uncertainties over the future. But much has been learned throughout the region over the past six months and prospects are good for new forms of struggle for social justice and national self-determination to take hold across the east-west divide.

Anti-war protests, for example, have continued in Ukraine following the ceasefire announcement. The population of south-east Ukraine has already taken measures to curb the economic domination of the billionaires who own the large industries in the region. Considering the elite’s support to Kyiv’s war, anti-oligarch measures are likely to deepen. This will appeal to others in Ukraine as the austerity program of President Poroshenko and Prime Minister Yatsenyuk bites deeper. It will also be noticed in Russia, where the economic elite and its corrupt capitalism are not popular. (Coincidentally, the regional government in Crimea has recently seized and will put up for sale the assets of Ukraine’s most notorious, right-wing billionaire, Ihor Kolomoisky.)

Russia’s cautious role in events, including pressuring for an inconclusive ceasefire, will have many in eastern Ukraine casting a much more critical eye over its role and interests.

Above all, the hawkish threats of NATO and the global capitalist interests it represents are a powerful catalyst for all the peoples of eastern Europe and Russia to unite against the twin policies of austerity and war. That will be a positive outcome to an otherwise tragic, five months of war. A movement of international solidarity with Ukraine can play a key role in blocking a return to war and facilitating popular reconciliation and anti-fascist, social justice struggle.


Democracy Now!

Friday, September 5, 2014

The Ukrainian government and pro-Russian rebels are reportedly set to sign a ceasefire today aimed at ending over six months of fighting that has killed at least 2,600 people and displaced over a million. The deal is expected this morning in the Belarusian capital of Minsk as President Obama and European leaders meet in Wales for a major NATO summit. The ceasefire comes at a time when the Ukrainian military has suffered a number of defeats at the hands of the Russian-backed rebels. In the hours leading up to the reported ceasefire, pro-Russian rebels launched another offensive to take the port city of Mariupol, which stands about halfway between Russia and the Crimea region. The Ukrainian government and NATO have accused Russia of sending forces into Ukraine, a claim Moscow denies. The new developments in Ukraine come as NATO has announced plans to create a new rapid reaction force in response to the Ukraine crisis. We are joined by Stephen Cohen, professor emeritus of Russian studies and politics at New York University and Princeton University, and the author of numerous books on Russia and the Soviet Union.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, now to international news.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, the Ukrainian government and pro-Russian rebels are reportedly set to sign a ceasefire today aimed at ending over six months of fighting in eastern Ukraine that has killed at least 2,600 people and displaced over one million. The deal is expected to be signed in the Belarusian capital Minsk as President Obama and European leaders meet in Wales for a major NATO summit. The ceasefire comes at a time when the Ukrainian military has suffered a number of defeats at the hands of the Russian-backed rebels.

A new dispatch from The New York Review of Books reveals the remnants of at least 68 Ukrainian military vehicles, tanks, armored personnel carriers, pickups, buses and trucks are littered along one 16-mile stretch in eastern Ukraine where the rebels launched an offensive last week. The reporter, Tim Judah, writes, quote, "The scale of the devastation suffered by Ukrainian forces in southeastern Ukraine over the last week has to be seen to be believed. It amounts to a catastrophic defeat and will long be remembered by embittered Ukrainians as among the darkest days of their history."

In the hours leading up to the ceasefire, pro-Russian rebels launched another offensive to take the port city of Mariupol, which stands about halfway between Russia and the Crimea region. The Ukrainian government and NATO have accused Russia of sending forces into Ukraine, a claim that Moscow continues to deny.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile in Wales, NATO has announced plans to create a new rapid reaction force in response to the Ukraine crisis. British Prime Minister David Cameron said the new force could be deployed anywhere in the world in two to five days.

PRIME MINISTER DAVID CAMERON: So we must be able to act more swiftly. In 2002, NATO stood down its high-readiness force. I hope that today we can agree a multinational spearhead force, deployable anywhere in the world in just two to five days. This would be part of a reformed NATO response force, with headquarters in Poland, forward units in the eastern allies, and pre-positioned equipment and infrastructure to allow more exercises and, if necessary, rapid reinforcement. If we can agree this, the United Kingdom will contribute 3,500 personnel to this multinational force.

AMY GOODMAN: In another development, the Pentagon has announced 200 U.S. troops will be sent to Ukraine later this month for a multinational military exercise dubbed Rapid Trident. Another 280 U.S. troops will work with Ukrainian forces next week for a military exercise aboard the USS Ross in the Black Sea.

To talk more about the crisis in Ukraine and the NATO summit, we’re joined by Stephen Cohen, professor emeritus of Russian studies and politics at New York University and Princeton University, also the author of a number of books on Russia and the Soviet Union. His latest piece in The Nation is headlined "Patriotic Heresy vs. the New Cold War: Neo-McCarthyites Have Stifled Democratic Debate on Russia and Ukraine."

So, welcome to Democracy Now!, Professor Cohen. Talk about the latest developments, both the decisions out of NATO and what’s happening on the ground in Ukraine.

STEPHEN COHEN: One latest development is related to what Juan just said about New York kids. There are about a million refugees from eastern Ukraine, most of them having fled to Russia, a lot of kids. Traditionally in Ukraine and Russia, the first day of school is September 1. There are about 50,000 to 70,000 kids who needed to have started school. The Russians have made every effort to get them in school, but there are a lot of little Ukrainian kids who won’t be going to school this September yet, because they’re living in refugee camps. And that’s the story, of course.

This is a horrific, tragic, completely unnecessary war in eastern Ukraine. In my own judgment, we have contributed mightily to this tragedy. I would say that historians one day will look back and say that America has blood on its hands. Three thousand people have died, most of them civilians who couldn’t move quickly. That’s women with small children, older women. A million refugees. Talk of a ceasefire that might go into place today, which would be wonderful, because nobody else should die for absolutely no reason.

But what’s driving the new developments, and partially the NATO meeting in Wales, but this stunning development, that Juan mentioned, reported in The New York Review of Books, though a handful of us in this country have been trying to get it into the media for nearly two weeks, is that it appeared that the Ukrainian army would conquer eastern Ukraine. But what they were doing is sitting outside the cities, bombarding these cities with aircraft, rockets, heavy artillery. That’s what caused the 3,000 deaths and the refugees. They’ve seriously damaged the entire infrastructure, industrial infrastructure, of Ukraine, which is in these eastern cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, the so-called Donbas region.

It turned out, though, that the Ukrainian army didn’t want to enter these cities, where the rebels were embedded, ensconced. It’s their homes; these fighters are mainly from these cities. And while this killing was going on, the rebels were regrouping. Now, there’s an argument: How much help did they get from Russia? Some people are saying Russia invaded. Others say, no, Russia just gave them some technical and organizational support. But whatever happened in the last 10 days, there’s been one of the most remarkable military turnarounds we’ve witnessed in many years, and the Ukrainian army is not only being defeated, but it’s on the run. It’s fleeing. It wants no more of this. It’s leaving its heavy equipment behind. It’s really in full-scale retreat, except in one place, the city Juan mentioned, Mariupol, where there’s a fight going on as we talk now. The rebels have the city encircled. Whether that fighting will stop if the ceasefire is announced in the next couple hours, we don’t know. It’s a very important city. But everything has now changed. If there’s negotiation, the government of Ukraine, Poroshenko, the president, our President Obama and NATO thought that when negotiations began, the West would dictate the terms to Putin because they won the war in Ukraine. Now it’s the reverse.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Now, what about this whole issue of United States forces now actually being introduced, the exercises in Ukraine? To what degree do you see the Obama administration being drawn more and more into the conflict?

STEPHEN COHEN: Well, we have to ask ourselves, because we don’t fully know, because Obama is a kind of aloof figure who disappears in moments like this, then reappears and says kind of ignomatic things. But are we being drawn into it, or are we driving these events? It has been true, ever since NATO was created, that the United States controlled NATO. Now, it is also true now that there—that NATO is deeply divided on the Ukrainian issue. There’s a war party. And the war party is led by Poland, the three Baltic states, to a certain extent Romania but not so much, and Britain. Then there’s a party that wants to accommodate Russia, that thinks that this is not entirely Russia’s fault. And moreover, these people—the Germans, the French, the Spanish, the Italians—depend on Russia, in many ways, for their economic prosperity. They want to negotiate, not punish Russia. Where is Obama in this? It would appear nowhere, except occasionally he comes in, as he did in Estonia—was it yesterday or the day before?—and seem to give a speech that favors the war party.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to the comments of President Obama when he was in the former Soviet republic of Estonia blaming Russia for the fighting and vowing to defend the Baltic states.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: It was not the government of Kiev that destabilized eastern Ukraine. It’s been the pro-Russian separatists, who are encouraged by Russia, financed by Russia, trained by Russia, supplied by Russia and armed by Russia. And the Russian forces that have now moved into Ukraine are not on a humanitarian or peacekeeping mission. They are Russian combat forces with Russian weapons in Russian tanks.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s President Obama. Professor Stephen Cohen?

STEPHEN COHEN: Yeah, it is. It certainly is President Obama. Look, here’s the underlying problem. What Obama just said implies, if not asserts, that if it wasn’t for Russia, Ukraine would be stable, that Russia has destabilized Ukraine. No serious person would believe that to be the case. Ukraine is in the throes of a civil war, which was precipitated by the political crisis that occurred in Ukraine last November and then this February, when the elected president of Ukraine was overthrown by a street mob, and that set off a civil war, primarily between the west, including Kiev, and the east, but not only. There’s a central Ukraine that’s here and there. This civil war then became, as I said it would or might when we first started talking earlier this year, a proxy war between the United States and Russia.

Now, it’s absolutely true that Russia has made the destabilization of Ukraine worse. It’s also absolutely true that the United States has contributed to the destabilization of Ukraine. But if tomorrow the United States would go away and Russia would go away, Ukraine would still be in a civil war. And we know what civil wars are. We had one in our country. Russia had one. There were many civil wars around the world in the 20th century and elsewhere today. The point is, the only way you can end a civil war, either the one side completely conquers and the other side gives up, as happened with the Confederacy in the United States, or there’s a stalemate or somebody says, "Enough killing, because these are brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers, they’re part of the same family," and you negotiate.

So we will see later today, perhaps, or tomorrow whether this ceasefire comes and if it holds. Now, negotiating a civil war is terribly complex. In some ways, we’re still arguing about the American Civil War. I grew up in Kentucky, segregated Kentucky, and in my childhood, people were still claiming we, the South, won. So, this isn’t going to end if the United States and Russia goes way. But both sides have the capacity to get these negotiations going. But when Obama says that Russia destabilized Ukraine, it’s a half-truth.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Stephen Cohen, I wanted to ask you—you’ve come under some criticism by other Russia experts in the U.S. as being an apologist for the Russian intervention in Ukraine, I think in Forbes magazine. Op-ed piece there claimed that you were questioning whether Ukraine had the right to exercise control over its own territory, that it was plotting to seize its own territory. I’m wondering your response to that criticism.

STEPHEN COHEN: Yeah, I mean, many very harsh and unpleasant, probably libelous and slanderous things have been said about me, which suggests to me that they have no factual response to me. Rather than call me a toady and an apologist and a paid hiring of the Kremlin, I’d like to hear what factual mistakes I’ve made. And I haven’t seen any, because I’m a scholar and I try not to make factual mistakes.

It’s not about whether Ukraine has the right to take back its territory. The problem is, as I just said, that a civil war began when we, the United States, and Europe backed a street coup that overthrew an elected president. When you overthrow a constitution and when you overthrow a president, you’re likely to get a civil war. It usually happens. Now, when you have a civil war, the country is divided. And in this case, the government in Kiev is trying to conquer where the rebels, so to speak, are located. The problem is that the rebel provinces do not recognize the legitimacy of the government in Kiev. The United States recognizes the legitimacy, but that doesn’t make it legitimate.

Now, let’s go to what’s going on in Kiev now. I mean, Obama also said—and I kind of chuckled and cried—that we are helping Ukraine build a democracy. What kind of democracy is unfolding in Kiev? All right, they had a presidential election. About a fifth of the country couldn’t vote. Now, Poroshenko has called a parliamentary election in October, a month from now. But where the war is, in the south and the east, they won’t vote. So you’re going to end up with a rump country, further dividing the country. Meanwhile, they’re shutting down democracy in Kiev. Communist Party is being banned. Another party that represents the east is being banned. People are being arrested. There’s censorship kicking in. There’s no democracy in Kiev, because it’s a wartime government. You just don’t get democracy. So, these assertions by the United States that we’re democracy builders, we’re virtuous, and it’s all Putin’s fault, this is—it’s worse than a half-truth; it’s actually a falsehood.

AMY GOODMAN: The possibility of Ukraine in NATO and what that means and what—

STEPHEN COHEN: Nuclear war.


STEPHEN COHEN: Next question. I mean, it’s clear. It’s clear. First of all, by NATO’s own rules, Ukraine cannot join NATO, a country that does not control its own territory. In this case, Kiev controls less and less by the day. It’s lost Crimea. It’s losing the Donbas—I just described why—to the war. A country that does not control its own territory cannot join Ukraine [sic]. Those are the rules.

AMY GOODMAN: Cannot join—

STEPHEN COHEN: I mean, NATO. Secondly, you have to meet certain economic, political and military criteria to join NATO. Ukraine meets none of them. Thirdly, and most importantly, Ukraine is linked to Russia not only in terms of being Russia’s essential security zone, but it’s linked conjugally, so to speak, intermarriage. There are millions, if not tens of millions, of Russian and Ukrainians married together. Put it in NATO, and you’re going to put a barricade through millions of families. Russia will react militarily.

In fact, Russia is already reacting militarily, because look what they’re doing in Wales today. They’re going to create a so-called rapid deployment force of 4,000 fighters. What is 4,000 fighters? Fifteen thousand or less rebels in Ukraine are crushing a 50,000-member Ukrainian army. Four thousand against a million-man Russian army, it’s nonsense. The real reason for creating the so-called rapid deployment force is they say it needs infrastructure. And the infrastructure—that is, in plain language is military bases—need to be on Russia’s borders. And they’ve said where they’re going to put them: in the Baltic republic, Poland and Romania.

Now, why is this important? Because NATO has expanded for 20 years, but it’s been primarily a political expansion, bringing these countries of eastern Europe into our sphere of political influence; now it’s becoming a military expansion. So, within a short period of time, we will have a new—well, we have a new Cold War, but here’s the difference. The last Cold War, the military confrontation was in Berlin, far from Russia. Now it will be, if they go ahead with this NATO decision, right plunk on Russia’s borders. Russia will then leave the historic nuclear agreement that Reagan and Gorbachev signed in 1987 to abolish short-range nuclear missiles. It was the first time nuclear—a category of nuclear weapons had ever been abolished. Where are, by the way, the nuclear abolitionists today? Where is the grassroots movement, you know, FREEZE, SANE? Where have these people gone to? Because we’re looking at a new nuclear arms race. Russia moves these intermediate missiles now to protect its own borders, as the West comes toward Russia. And the tripwire for using these weapons is enormous.

One other thing. Russia has about, I think, 10,000 tactical nuclear weapons, sometimes called battlefield nuclear weapons. You use these for short distances. They can be fired; you don’t need an airplane or a missile to fly them. They can be fired from artillery. But they’re nuclear. They’re radioactive. They’ve never been used. Russia has about 10,000. We have about 500. Russia’s military doctrine clearly says that if Russia is threatened by overwhelming conventional forces, we will use tactical nuclear weapons. So when Obama boasts, as he has on two occasions, that our conventional weapons are vastly superior to Russia, he’s feeding into this argument by the Russian hawks that we have to get our tactical nuclear weapons ready.

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Foreign Policy, the US ruling class journal, ran the following report on August 30, 2014.

Preparing for War With Ukraine's Fascist Defenders of Freedom

On the frontlines of the new offensive in eastern Ukraine, the hardcore Azov Battalion is ready for battle with Russia. But they're not fighting for Europe, either.

MARIUPOL, Ukraine - Blue and yellow Ukrainian flags fly over Mariupol's burned-out city administration building and at military checkpoints around the city, but at a sport school near a huge metallurgical plant, another symbol is just as prominent: the wolfsangel ("wolf trap") symbol that was widely used in the Third Reich and has been adopted by neo-Nazi groups.

The Azov Battalion -- so named for the Sea of Azov on which this industrial city is located -- is one of dozens of volunteer battalions fighting alongside pro-government forces in eastern Ukraine. After separatist troops and armor attacked from the nearby Russian border and took the neighboring town of Novoazovsk, this openly neo-Nazi unit has suddenly found itself defending the city against what Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called a Russian invasion.

Pro-Russian forces have said they are fighting against Ukrainian nationalists and "fascists" in the conflict, and in the case of Azov and other battalions, these claims are essentially true.

With the incursion from the Russian border, Mariupol, which had been peaceful since pro-Russian protestors were forced out in May, has become a third theater in the eastern Ukrainian conflict along with the rebel strongholds of Donetsk and Luhansk. Pro-Russian forces claim this week's advance along the coast has been made by separatist rebels, but Oleh Odnorozhenko, deputy commander of the Azov Battalion, comprised of some 500 men, said the Ukrainians are facing thousands of regular Russian Army troops. He claimed that his men have captured dozens of Russian soldiers over the past week and destroyed a Russian fighting infantry vehicle.

"Despite all its wishes, the Russian Army will have a difficult time taking Mariupol," Odnorozhenko said, cradling his Kalashnikov as two more fighters jogged laps with their weapons behind him. "We have left our positions so it's not possible to shell us from Russia. That's why they came to Novoazovsk. Mariupol won't be taken without blood."

Odnorozhenko said the city's defenders are "first and foremost volunteer battalions," with numbers of National Guard and regular Ukrainian Army troops playing a smaller role. Overall, there are more than 50 volunteer battalions fighting in eastern Ukraine, he said. The pervasiveness of these paramilitary units has raised concerns about their influence over the government. National Guard spokesman Ruslan Muzychuk said the volunteer battalions play a role in the city's defense but insisted that "all the battalions in the anti-terrorist operation cooperate according to the military chain of command."

The conflict in eastern Ukraine has come, in some ways, to resemble a battle between Ukrainian and Russian nationalists. Volunteers from the nationalist groups who clashed with riot police on Kiev's Independence Square this past winter have filled out the ranks of the many battalions fighting alongside Ukraine's small, dilapidated regular army in the east, including Azov.

Meanwhile, the pro-Russian forces are striving to reunite what they say are historically Russian lands to create Novorossiya ("New Russia"). Each side refuses to see anything of itself in the other. The pro-Russians call the Ukrainians fascists, who in turn portray their opponents as imperialists. Odnorozhenko said the conflict involved "people with a European identity fighting with Sovietness."

But the "European identity" to which Odnorozhenko aspires is one estranged from mainstream European and American liberalism. The Azov Battalion, whose emblem also includes the "Black Sun" occult symbol used by the Nazi SS, was founded by Andriy Biletsky, head of the neo-Nazi groups Social-National Assembly and Patriots of Ukraine. Although the Social-National Assembly website linked to by the Azov Battalion's social network pages said its program was undergoing "development and modernization," other materials on the site give a clear idea of the group's political leanings.

"Unfortunately, among the Ukrainian people today there are a lot of 'Russians' (by their mentality, not their blood), 'kikes,' 'Americans,' 'Europeans' (of the democratic-liberal European Union), 'Arabs,' 'Chinese' and so forth, but there is not much specifically Ukrainian," read one text. "The reason for this situation is the mass propaganda of trans-myths that are foreign to us through advertising, television, laws and education. It's unclear how much time and effort will be needed to eradicate these dangerous viruses from our people."

According to Odnorozhenko, the battalion's political platform supports the natsiokratiya, a system of government devised by the Ukrainian nationalists of the 1930s and 1940s, who fought Soviet forces but were also guilty of atrocities such as the murder of thousands of Jews and Poles. It supports a national government based on syndicates representing different classes of the population, as well as a strong foreign policy including the nuclear re-armament of Ukraine, he said.

The battalion has a number of foreign volunteers, including numerous Russians, four Swedes and one Canadian, but no Americans, Odnorozhenko said -- as two jeeps full of tanned fighters in sunglasses and bandannas rolled into base, a wolfsangel painted on each side.

Although he declined to provide details, Odnorozhenko said the Ukrainian forces are deploying armor, building fortifications, and "activating different military groups" in the Mariupol area. Local activists have been digging trenches in some places outside the city and organizing "civil defense" forces.

Ukrainian forces have been falling back in the face of the Russian advance. According to various reports, they had retreated to the west of the town of Bezimenne ("No Name"), which would put them within 20 miles of Mariupol itself.

Besides a strong defense, Ukraine needs the support of the West to defeat the invaders, Odnorozhenko argued. He called for the Europe and the United States to take a more aggressive stance on Russia and begin shipping weapons to Ukrainian pro-government forces. Oddly enough, he compared the conflict to World War II, when his battalion's ideological forebears were fighting Soviet and Western troops.

"The blindness and stupidity of the European political elite will lead to Russian aggression being open and unhidden, and Russian forces will soon be everywhere," he said. "A hybrid war? We have the kind of normal war that was last seen in Europe in 1945."