False “Russian Spring”

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False “Russian Spring”

During the EuroMaidan, both in Kyiv and in Eastern Ukraine, there were demonstrations calling for the reining in of the oligarchy and the overthrow of the Yanukovych regime. But over time the slogans of the demonstrators in southeastern Ukraine began to change, although the region’s population remained the same. The Girl in Kherson After the loss of Crimea in March 2014, people in southeastern Ukraine began talking about the “Banderite” menace. There was some basis for this. There were numerous remarks by the nationalist Freedom party and representatives of the Right Sector, who declared that, after taking Kyiv, they would go on to take the east.

Kherson, Ukraine - War with Russia
Kherson, Ukraine – War with Russia

In truth, these nationalist parties neither took the capital nor went on to “take” eastern Ukraine. In the May Presidential Elections, the Right Sector candidate won 0.7 percent of the vote (by way of comparison, the Jewish oligarch Vadim Rabinovich won 2.27 percent of the vote and turned out to be more than three times as popular). Yet, southeastern Ukraine started to become a base for fighting against the “Banderization” of Ukraine, and this political awakening began to be referred to as the “Russian Spring.”

The specific event that triggered the “Russian Spring” was the Verkhovna Rada’s hasty repeal on 23 February, 2014, of Yanukovych’s regional languages law, which had made it possible for Russian-speaking Ukrainians to use Russian as an official language in southeastern Ukraine and Crimea. This imprudent decision by the Rada detonated latent partisan discontent, and initially this discontent spread throughout Ukraine – and conveniently for Russia – as a movement calling for the defense of the Russian language and the Russian-speaking population from the “Banderites entrenched in Kyiv.”

In addition, EuroMaidan supporters in Kyiv and western Ukraine had begun a movement of occupying regional administrations, toppling monuments of Lenin (erected throughout the country by the Soviet regime and which still had not been removed), dismissing governors and mayors of cities from their posts, and vigilante justice and beatings, such as the tying of the governor of Volhynia to a whipping post. These actions were not considered fair by people in the eastern regions, although, prior to this moment in time, Yanukovych and his Donetsk clan were not regarded with much fondness in eastern Ukraine either.

It was against this background that a “process of unification” of southeastern Ukraine – which began on February 22, 2014 in Kharkiv, at a meeting of local government officials – spread through the Kharkiv, Donetsk, Luhansk, and Zaporizhzhia regions. Radical elements in the southeast now also started occupying regional administrations and buildings belonging to the security services and law enforcement agencies. Outwardly, the protests and unrest were a mirror image of analogous protests in the western part of Ukraine. But their thrust was different. At a conference in Kharkiv, demonstrators urged local authorities to take control over the regions, and this was seen by Kyiv as separatism.

Supporters of this eastern movement now began to be called “separatists,” although strictly speaking neither during the conference itself, nor during the first demonstrations in Kharkiv, Donetsk, and Luhansk, were there any calls for separatism. These calls for separatism began to be heard later, after young combative people arriving from Russia – mostly from the Belgorod, Voronezh, and Rostov regions of the Russian Federation, which border on Ukraine – began to mingle among the demonstrators.

Gradually, the situation began to ignite and spin out of control. There were mutual clashes. Aggression came less from EuroMaidan supporters than by from pro-Russian activists, who were well prepared for such aggression. The participants in the fights came predominantly not from pro-Russian social associations, but from such organizations such as Kharkiv’s “Oplot” (Bulwark) whose ranks were made up of youths trained in combat sports, who knew how to use both fists and baseballs bats. These organizations usually spread to other regions, for example, to Donbas, joining local self-defense units, which were reinforced by Russian troops deployed to southeastern Ukraine from Russia and Crimea.

In reality, this “Russian Spring” was nothing other than a Russian diversionary campaign carried out by Russian security services in Ukraine, latching on to local discontent, with the aim of destabilizing the political situation. From February 2014, three tactics were deployed: local Russian operatives and agents; local pro-Russian “separatists” and “militants”; and sabotage experts from special forces units of the GRU and the FSB, who in Soviet times had been sent to Africa and Latin America to foment revolts and civil wars.207 Now they could use their mother tongue, which made the sabotage experts’ work much easier and made fighting with them much more difficult for Ukraine’s law enforcement agencies. The interim goal of the “Russian Spring” was to unleash an information war, provoke ethnic, religious, and regional clashes, so as to create conditions for the introduction of Russian troops into Ukraine with the aim of occupying initially a part of Ukraine, and then its entire territory. The final political and geopolitical goal of the operation was the abolition of Ukraine’s sovereignty.

The demonstrations in the southeast assumed a more and more anti-government character. Calls for the overthrow of the “Kyiv cabal” were constantly heard (Russian propaganda teams had skillfully put this term about), as well as calls for the annexation of southeastern Ukraine to Russia. The nature of the demonstrators changed as their ranks swelled with mercenaries from Russia, retired soldiers and officers from Crimea, local pro-Russian “militants” hired from among the local population for money, and even criminals, released from prisons.

While in their initial stages the civic demonstrations in southeastern Ukraine were peaceful in nature, now the “demonstrators” led by Russian security services agents turned into organized military factions, armed and financed by secret sources. The suspicion fell, on the one hand, on Russia, and on the other hand, on former Ukrainian President Yanukovych and his people, who were hiding in Russia.

The propaganda war unleashed simultaneously by the Russian media against Ukraine was breathtaking in its gross distortion. Yet it turned out to be highly effective, particularly because prominent Russian cultural A-listers took an active part in this propaganda war on Russia’s side.

As a counterweight to this, their Ukrainian counterparts appealed to Russian colleagues and friends to “show respect for the aspiration of Ukrainians to continue building their state on a legal foundation after the fall of the corrupt” Yanukovych regime, which was “stained with the blood of its own people.” “We are no fascists, no extremists,” they stated in their appeal. “We have an overwhelming desire to live in a free country. We call on you to support the Ukrainian people’s right to defend its independence and to help to stop the war between the friendly and brotherly Russian and Ukrainian nations, to stop Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine’s territory!”

Putin’s plans

Before the overthrow of Yanukovych’s regime, few people in Ukraine imagined that Russia might launch a military invasion. Neither its military nor its elite foresaw this danger. The situation changed after the Russian occupation and annexation of Crimea. Now a Russian invasion of continental Ukraine looked like a real possibility. Yekaterina Gorchinsky, the editor-in-chief of the Kyiv Post, published a leaked Russian document entitled “On the Crisis in Ukraine.” It contained a plan for the occupation of Crimea, obtained from a reliable source, which had been developed by Russia’s Security Council. It made provisions for the annexation to Russia of Crimea, eleven Ukrainian regions, and Kyiv:

 

 

First, only the full annexation to the Russian Federation of the Russian regions of Ukraine, namely Crimea and the regions of Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia, Dnipropetrovsk, Chernihiv, Sumy, Kharkiv, Kyiv, Kherson, Nikolaev, and Odessa, can guarantee peace, security, and prosperity to their inhabitants and secure the reliable protection of Russia’s interests. Second, this objective may be realized only by establishing control over the Mother of Russian Cities, the capital of Ukraine, the Hero City Kyiv.

 

 

The document had been prepared long before the start of the unrest in eastern Ukraine and Russia’s occupation of Crimea, since it contained provisions for the suppression of the EuroMaidan and the dissolution of the Verkhovna Rada, with all power passing into Yanukovych’s personal control. Russia planned to use the “period of chaos” for its own political interests, intending to “neutralize the most prominent representatives of the Banderite opposition” and to take “stabilizing measures” aimed at creating favorable conditions for Ukraine’s participation in integration with the CIS, while removing from power those who believed that Ukraine should join NATO and the EU.

When were such plans hatched? As early as April 2008, invited to the NATO summit in Bucharest, several months before the Russian invasion of Georgia but after Yanukovych was dismissed by then President Yushchenko as Prime Minister, Putin had stated that Ukraine was a failed state and that many Ukrainian territories, which had been attached to Ukraine by Russia during different historical periods, should return to Russia. At that time, all those present at the summit, including American President George W. Bush, took Putin’s remark as a joke. The only person not laughing was Andrey Illarionov, former economic policy advisor to President Putin. On his blog, Illarionov posted an article entitled “Plan for Military Actions Against Ukraine,” written by a Russian expert who had for many years worked for Russia’s Defense Department.

The third President of Ukraine, Viktor Yushchenko, was also convinced that a “Russian plan” for Ukraine was to put an end to Ukraine’s existence an independent state, and insisted on European integration as soon as possible as the only possible means of avoiding war and preserving Ukraine’s sovereignty. He warned about this on February 21, 2014, well before the annexation of Crimea. “The development of the Russian scenario, which consists… [of] the escalation of the conflict… [and] the formation of a puppet government, must be brought to a halt at once,” Yushchenko stated. “A permanent European Union mission should be established to facilitate Ukraine’s return to European integration as a guarantee of the preservation of its territorial integrity, as a guarantee of the return of peace and stability, and as a guarantee of the further enactment of reforms in all spheres. Ukraine must take steps toward Europe by approving a policy of political association with it, establishing a free trade zone, and introducing a visa-free transit regime; at the same time, the EU must impose financial sanctions and other constraints on the organizers of the terror against Ukrainians.”

 

But for the most part, the failure to appreciate the seriousness of the Russian leadership’s plans for Ukraine was global. Most politicians, analysts, experts, and specialists on Russia and Ukraine believed that Putin would not dare to annex Crimea. After the occupation of Crimea, many assumed that the Kremlin would limit itself to recognizing the “independence of Crimea” and possibly its inclusion in the Russia’s Customs Union, but still would not go so far as to annex it, let alone to launch a military invasion of southeastern Ukraine.

Putin did exactly what he had said he would do in 2008. He annexed Crimea and went on to the next stage: dispatching GRU and FSB special units to Ukraine in order to organize “self-defense forces” there. Here is one of the first Russian letters of instructions to Ukrainian “separatists” and southeastern “militants” (read, in both cases, Russian operatives):

 

 

1. Do not leave buildings that have been occupied, but reinforce and hold them. At night, there should be no fewer than 1000 people, armed and entrenched, in each building-encampment. Men should be in units; women should supply provisions and medical supplies. Organize round-the-clock sentries, form armed rapid response groups.

2. In the regions, “cut off” local SBU offices. Occupy buildings, shut down communications, put facilities out of service. The Kyiv SBU office must lose regional support. SBU is enemy no 1; it must be cut off by any means possible; its agents must be exposed.

3. Occupy local television studios and start your own broadcasting. Most importantly: preserve technical access to the network. If the reporters run away, do anything you like – show YouTube clips, read the news. Most important: broadcast your own information.

4. Do not call for referendums, instead organize them. Establish election committees, demand that official election committees provide lists of voters, arrange with printers to print leaflets. Accept help from the official authorities in Donetsk, who were also in favor of a referendum; but do not cede the initiative to them.

5. Go to the mines and campaign for support. Thus far, this is a revolution of young people and old people. Everyone else is working, drinking beer. The mines must switch to a regime of strikes until the situation has been fully decided. In the event of a reunification with Russia, work stoppages will be fully compensated.

6. Enter into contact with “The Legitimate One” [President Yanukovych]. Let him do at least something useful – appoint people’s representatives as bosses [governors] of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

7. Spread propaganda among the police to get them not to intervene and not to carry out orders “to protect” governing bodies that are loyal to the junta. Forbid them to engage even in passive defense. They shouldn’t meddle.

8. Block Internal Troops units. Encourage conscripts drafted as part of the mobilization to go over to the side of the people in an organized fashion.

9. Unlock the border with the Russian Federation in at least a few districts. On the western borders of southeastern Ukraine, on the contrary, establish pickets and do not let anyone from western Ukraine come in.

 

 

It is evident that important strategic decisions in Russia today (if not all decisions) are made not collectively, but individually by Putin, for whom his own interests and the interests of his inner circle are paramount. At the same time, it appears that Putin has no strategic plan. More precisely, his plan consists in taking over all the parts of the “Russian world” that the international community will allow to be taken over. But where this “Russian world” begins and where it ends is something that no one in Russia today knows, including President Putin. The concept is transgressionary – it will morph into some other expansionist idea once “all Russians” are gathered behind his borders.

 

 

The Empire returns

 

 

When the Russian army occupied Crimea, it might have seemed to many that the world had gone mad. But it was not the whole world that had gone mad, and not even all of Russia: only the relatively small group of people who ruled this country. Of course, once one calmly and objectively analyzed everything that was going on, it became clear that this group of people had also not gone mad. In the clinical sense of the word, they were perfectly sane. But they inhabited a different mind space, one that had long disappeared in Europe.

The older residents of eastern and southeastern Ukraine also lived in a different dimension. Cut off in 1991 from both Moscow and Kyiv, they now attempted to return to a long-gone Soviet Union, assembling with red banners around Lenin monuments. They did not understand that Putin’s Russia was not the old USSR that they had known since childhood, but an altogether different kind of state, in which the wild laws of the market prevailed. They tried to go back to a bygone age of Communism.

In part, neither the current leaders of Russia not the residents of southeastern Ukraine were to blame for all this. Soviet era Communist culture vanished suddenly in 1991, without explanation. Meanwhile, the people who ruled Russia had grown up before 1991. In their past lives, almost all of them had been members of the CPSU: some had been part of the Komsomol (the youth branch of the CPSU); others had worked for the KGB or the GRU. These organizations had a very particular character. The people who belonged to them were carefully chosen, and their work in these agencies left a deep impression on their personalities. These people never thought that the Soviet Union was “bad” – nor was it, to them. They sincerely believed that the Soviet Union was “good,” and that some evil power (most likely the United States) in 1991 had ruined this wonderful country in which they played such a well-organized, comfortable role.

After 1991, several attempts were made to bring Russia back to the state in which it finds itself today. The August 1991 Moscow Putsch itself was the first attempt at such a return to the past. The second attempt took place in October 1993, when Russia’s Supreme Council, dominated by Communists, tried to overthrow President Yeltsin by impeaching him, organizing sabotage, and calling for an uprising. The third attempt was made in March 1996, when the head of Yeltsin’s Security Service (and a former bodyguard of Yuri Andropov), General Alexander Korzhakov, the head of Russia’s Ministry of Security (the successor agency to the KGB), Mikhail Barsukov, and their protege, Deputy Prime Minister Oleg Soskovets (thought of as the future President of Russia); tried to cancel or postpone the Presidential Elections by declaring a state of emergency.

The plan to declare a state of emergency owed its existence to the fact that all Russian public opinion surveys indicated that the Presidential Elections of 1996 would be won by Gennady Zyuganov, the candidate from the Communist Party, and not Yeltsin. To avoid losing power in 1996, the Yeltsin administration provoked the Chechen war before the election (in time, this war began to be called the “First Chechen War,” as, in 1999, it was followed by a “Second” one). The war was supposed to serve a pretext for declaring a state of emergency and canceling or postponing the election. After that, according to their plan, General Korzhakov had to find a way to remove Yeltsin: to force him to resign, to replace him with Oleg Soskovets, and to create a Russia like the one that exists today.

However, in 1996, the Russian security services were unable to take over the government: Yeltsin with his astonishing intuition understood that Korzhakov represented a threat, and accepted the helping hand that was offered to him by Russia’s oligarchs, foremost among them Boris Berezovsky (who gave Yuri Felshtinsky, co-author of this book, unrestricted access to his papers and other sources of this time in Russian history). Then, in 1996, Yeltsin went ahead with the election, called off the still undeclared state of emergency declaration from March, and fired Korzhakov, Barsukov, Soskovets. Whether honestly or dishonestly, he beat Zyuganov in the election by a slight margin and in return for this victory, he handed over the rule of Russia to the oligarchs – until the next Presidential Elections of 2000.

In 1999, Russia’s security services began a new assault on the Kremlin’s top position. This battle was won by Putin. It could have been won by the architect of the First Chechen War, Sergei Stepashin, or by Yevgeny Primakov, the former head the Russian secret service. All three came from the security services. All of them were considered by Yeltsin as potential successors to him as President of Russia. On the political chessboard of the Kremlin in 1999, the pieces were positioned in such a way that no matter what move was made, the outcome was the same – checkmate: in all cases, a member of the ex-KGB would become the next President.

When Vladimir Putin, the former head of the FSB (as the former federal intelligence service was now called), became President in May 2000, many in Russia and abroad were unhappy because he was Yeltsin’s man – or Abramovich’s – or Berezovsky’s – or Voloshin’s man – or the oligarchs’ man. But no one was unhappy about Putin’s appointment because he was from the KGB. In the political chess game of 2000, however, this was the most important element. And when Putin began to create a “power vertical,” emasculating the Council of the Federation, taming the parliament, changing the Constitution, establishing rigid centralization, abolishing a system of local elections (which may not have been absolutely free, but were at least not controlled by the Kremlin), and finishing off the independent media, no one could understand why he would need to do all this. But they let him. In February 2022, this at last became obvious for all to see: he needed to do it all for a new twist in the history of Russia, for the rebirth of the Russian empire. Because he could not launch the country into this without having first become a dictator.

Great effort was put into creating an ideology for “the people,” for how can “the people” be ruled without an ideology? After all, the Soviet Union, in the opinion of Putin and his inner circle, rested on two pillars: Communist ideology and the KGB. Among those who spoke to the need to create a new ideology was the Kremlin’s main ideologue and political operative, Vyacheslav Surkov. He was unable to come up with anything new, although he tried very hard. When Dmitry Rogozin, an undisguised Russian “fascist with a human face,” began his rise through the ranks and was eventually appointed as Deputy Prime Minister in charge of the military industry, a clear new ideology took shape: the ideology of Russian fascism.

Now even the President of the multi-ethnic state – which the Russian Federation had always been – began to say without embarrassment that he was a Russian nationalist and that to be a nationalist in Russia was good and commendable. Not a “patriot,” but specifically a “nationalist” – someone who is the diametrical opposite of a pre-1991 Communist. If we put this nationalist idea together with another one of Putin’s admissions – that his own greatest personal tragedy was the collapse of the USSR in 1991; and if we add to them Rogozin’s appointment as head of the defense industry, with Putin’s puppet Dmitry Medvedev overseeing the government’s financial policies and allocating more and more budgetary resources to the modernization of Russia’s army; then we will come up to the line that Russia crossed in when it began taking back territories lost by the Soviet Union in 1991.

Putin is preparing for the hundred-year anniversary of the start of the First World War by starting the Third World War. And not at all because he is crazy. By no means. The fact is that everyone in the KGB thought just as Putin thinks. The people with whom Putin has surrounded himself – Sergei and Viktor Ivanov, Igor Sechin – are exactly like him. They have only now finally “made it” in life; only now do they finally understand what they’ve been living for, why for so many years they licked the boots of democrats like Leningrad (St. Petersburg) mayor Anatoly Sobchak, or populists like Boris Yeltsin, or oligarchs like Boris Berezovsky, Roman Abramovich, and Mikhail Fridman.

“Back to the empire” – that is the slogan of the initial stage of the Third World War, the battle over Ukraine. Today, the whole world is embarrassed by this word. “Empire,” today, sounds proud, but criminal – forcing a population to give up its sovereignty at gunpoint. Russia is once again proud of it, as it was proud of it before and after 1917.

To judge by Russian television, after 2014, eastern Ukraine is Russian territory, temporarily occupied by a Nazi enemy, and Russian cultural figures, writers, journalists, are quite prepared to kill the “Ukrainian occupiers.” Orwell’s “Two Minutes Hate” (from his novel 1984) are child’s play compared to the coverage of Ukraine in the Russian media. And yet the words pouring off the screen were from leading opinion makers, “artists,” “masters of their genres”, not just news programmes. On his television show Replika (on Russia-24), the famous Russian writer Alexander Prokhanov vividly described how Ukrainians “will disembowel pregnant Russian women” (a literal quote) if they are not conquered. Channel One, which broadcasts practically to the whole country and is the main source of information for Russia’s population, talked of Ukrainians crucifying Russian children.

On all Russian television channels, there was a propaganda war going on. If one knew nothing about what was happening in the world and viewed only Russian television, then one knew that there was a certain odious country called Ukraine, ruled by a junta, and that the despicable, self-proclaimed government of this nasty country was maltreating the oppressed Russian population. There is another country called the United States, and some kind of strange association called the EU, which, although they are not as vile as Ukraine, are also despicable and dishonorable. They are constantly doing harm to the benevolent and humble Russian Federation – a neighboring state whose heart bleeds both for the Russians living in Ukraine and for the hapless, foolish ordinary Ukrainians, who have ended up under the control of the junta and the “fascists,” referred to as “Banderites”; and these Ukrainians (whom Russia is in addition kindly subsidizing to the tune of billions of rubles per year) do not want to understand that it would be better for them to submit to Russia and to forget about independence – well, “Nazi”-rule really. This is broadcast in Russian, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, by the special news channel Russia-24, and 22 percent of Ukrainians, mainly Russian-speakers in the east, watch it. At the same time, Russian TV (called RT to make it less immediately obvious that it is Russia’s channel) additionally broadcasts in English, to the whole world.

It is remarkable that, in contrast to 1938-1939, everyone knows everything. US and European leaders, forever trying to avoid economic problems in their own countries, everyone understood that Russia was aggression against a smaller neighboring state; and that its actions are the spitting image of Hitler’s and Stalin’s machinations. Everyone understood that the “insurgency” in eastern Ukraine was organized by Russia. No government needed the invasion of 2022 to have this explained to them.

The international community of course never recognized the petty scam that was Russia’s annexation of Crimea, or its blood-thirsty military attack on eastern Ukraine; and indeed, Russia has no support from a single state. What is happening is not about Ukraine, and the issue not whether Ukraine was good or bad, whether this or that government was or was not corrupt, and whether Crimea or eastern Ukraine really wants to become a part of Russia or whether it wanted to remain a part of Ukraine. The cause of all that is going on lies in Moscow and in Putin’s regime. And all grievances should be addressed to Russia alone.

As in the First World War, as in the Second World War, the offensive side believes that the victim will surrender and that there will not actually be a war. This is what Austria-Hungary believed in 1914, retaliating against Serbia for the assassination of the archduke; this is what Germany believed in 1939, laboring under a vision of all ethnic Germans united within the borders of a single state. This is what is believed today by FSB Lieutenant Colonel Putin, President of Russia, and his FSB Generals Sergei and Viktor Ivanov, and all the other men in uniform who are now in command in Russia and who have taken it upon themselves to unite within a new empire the whole “Russian world,” for the sake of which they are now hatching a new war: to make the planet recognize the greatness of Russia, just as Europe once had to recognize the greatness of Germany, or Asia and the United States – the greatness of Japan.

Experts in Europe, the United States, and Russia, are beginning to speak of war as something perfectly likely, casually alluding to nuclear weapons as well. This would be a war provoked for the sake of protecting a “Russian world,” which does not exist and has never existed: the greatest numbers of Russians were killed in Russia by Russians themselves. Starting in 1917, when the Bolsheviks came to power, the regime killed tens of millions of people.

Russians have once again reached the edge of a cliff: they are once again being sent to war. Only now it is not Lenin, not Stalin, and not even Brezhnev, but a group of colonels and generals from the KGB-FSB, who have taken over Russia.

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