As Ukraine and Europe inch closer to war there will be huge consequences (will moribund global capitalism benefit or further decline?) and contradictory effects on Lanka. War in Europe is not inevitable but military brinkmanship with a hard-to-predict momentum is unfolding. Ukraine in its present form is finished; what next? Civil war seems unavoidable and Russian intervention in some form, exactly how and when is still not clear, is assured. One can’t read Putin’s script but the aces are in his hand. Then, how will NATO respond? Can Germany, desperate to avoid pan-European conflict, and America, facing opposing internal lobbies, hold together and formulate strategy in common? I would like to do some crystal-ball gazing today.
It is also not too early to think about how to deal with the Lankan scenario if conditions deteriorate in Europe. The uncertainties are complicated by a likely change of government in India and a Lankan regime which has all but taken leave of its rational senses. Will a local Goebbels see global turmoil as a crack in the door for the military jackboot? If so can the cowardly people of Lanka fight back? Has the JVP got the balls and the brawn to lead a fight back? Maybe, but it is less certain whether it has the acumen to do it correctly, not conspiratorially. The poor JVP must feel as if it has unexpectedly been made captain; then sent out to bat at number eleven.
Civilian human-chains battle Ukrainian army in Slavyansk on May Day 2014.
Civil war in Ukraine and European fall out
The writing on the wall, now during the second week of May, is that folks in eastern Ukraine will not settle for less than autonomy if they are to coexist in a single state, and that any future right-wing regime in Kiev after the 25 May presidential election, will find this unbearable. It seems reasonable to conclude that a political settlement cannot be reached. The power brokers in Kiev are Svoboda and Right Sector. The former is an extremist political party; the Right Sector is a shadowy umbrella grouping of fascistic thugs. Their relationship is a little like that between the JHU and BBS; they agree on many points but are organisationally separate.
Oleh Tyahnybok, who is a member of the Ukranian parliament, leads far-right Svoboda which holds three cabinet posts in the post-coup regime. The normally somnolent European Parliament in a resolution in 2012 expressed concern about Svoboda’s “racist, anti-Semitic and xenophobic views”. In May 2013 the World Jewish Congress labelled it neo-Nazi and called for a ban. Svobooda is the champion of a “Speak-Ukrainian-Only” campaign and polled two million votes in parliamentary elections in 2012 and over 15% in six of the country’s 26 provinces including the capital Kiev.
Right Sector, led by Dmytro Yarosh, was formed in November 2013 as a confederation of far-right, nationalist and neo-Nazi groups. Unlike Svoboda it has stated that it is not anti-sematic, but it is fascistic and sent in snipers who played a crucial role in the coup d’etat that overthrew pro-Russian President Yanukovych in February 2014. According to Yarosh, Right Sector has recruited retired officers of the interior ministry and the security agencies and claims to coordinate its actions with the army and the National Security and Defence Council. [The BBS met Lieutenant General Jagath Jayasuriya, Major General Shavendra Silva and others from the Lanka Army in late February 2013 to discuss “extremist” Muslim groups according to a report by Indika Sri Aravinda in the Sunday Leader of 3 March 2013. The love affair between the police and the BBS is, of course, a public scandal].
Following the coup in Kiev, Crimea decided at a hastily called referendum to join Russia and was quickly incorporated. The horrified US and EU could do no more than wring their hands and impose ineffectual sanctions on Putin’s close associates. The big picture moved on with its own momentum. Demonstrations spread to the country’s east, south and Odessa City. Activists who styled themselves the Self-Defence Movement took over government buildings in three eastern provinces Donetsk, Khariv and Luhansk, bordering Russia. Scores were killed in clashes that broke out in the southern port city of Odessa, third largest in the country. The three eastern provinces and Odessa contain large ethnic Russian minorities, though ethnic Ukrainians are the majority. Many ethnic Ukrainians in these regions use Russian as their first language and the pro-autonomy movement it seems has won many of them over. There certainly have been no pro-Kiev demonstrations in the east or in Crimea.
As clashes spiral, Ukraine is tearing itself apart. Russia is accused of injecting agents and provoking trouble and it would be amazing if this were not true, but the deeper reality is that there is a spontaneous uprising demanding federalism. Outsiders can only stir turbulent indigenous waters. Kiev sent troops to regain control of the eastern provinces and failed. They were neutralised by people on the streets or they crossed over to the other side. Kiev then launched a more determined offensive on May 1 and clashes are ongoing in Slavyansk, Kramatorsk and other cities; casualties are mounting. Russian troops across the border have not rolled in; probably playing a waiting game till casualties mount and intervention is justified. It is hard to imagine Putin prevaricating and letting things get out of hand as the West did in Syria. Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, said “Most people literally are demanding active help from Russia”. This sounds like preparation for military incursion.
Kiev by sending the military to quell the east, instead of negotiating, and by allowing Right Sector sniper-killer squads to accompany the troops, is orchestrating chaos under the absurd illusion that NATO will step in. Paula Slier of RT (pro-Russian TV network in the US) reports: “A local told me he saw Right-Sector putting people on their knees and shooting them in back of the head at Kramatorsk”. Russian TV broadcasts claim: “The hospitals are filled up, they are receiving a lot of injured; some of those injured are sent from Kramatorsk to Slavyansk.” These reports are not credible but what is obvious is there is a propaganda build-up to justify some form of Russian intervention. On May 2 Russia called a second meeting of the UN Security Council within a week and demanded that “The illegitimate government in Kiev and its Western enablers to not commit a fatal error. Stop the offensive, a criminal misadventure”.
I would be surprised if there is no direct or indirect Russian move before 25 May, Kiev’s proposed presidential election-day. The illegitimate post-coup regime is a more justifiable target than a future elected one. Indirect moves could be to arm and train Self-Defence Movement (SDM) cadres and to recognise the outcome of the 11 May referendum on autonomy in the eastern provinces called by SDM activists. Russia is unlikely to act prior to legitimisation by the referendum. Conversely, Kiev is moving with urgency to block it; but hoping for NATO’s direct intervention is naïve.
May 11, as you read this, could be apocalypse day for Ukraine. Even if Russian tanks roll-in there will be no military response from NATO. The stakes of a neutral and nuclear-free Ukraine are far higher for Russia than the West; Europe knows this and will back off. The principal factor that is holding Putin back is the horrendous costs that an invasion and subsequent financial support for eastern Ukraine will impose on a struggling Russian economy.
Distracted cat and greedy rats
Thus far I have discounted an international war but agreed that civil war and break-up of the Ukraine is likely. This is serious enough to distract global powers from other concerns and encourage truant regimes like the Rajapaksas of Lanka to go out on a limb. They may reckon that the world will not focus on the post-Geneva scenario and UNHRC pressure will ease. The bolder among them may calculate that it’s an opportunity to let the mad dogs of extremism run amok, thrash a few Muslims, burn a few Evangelical churches. Elements in the defence establishment may like to tilt the balance of power more in their favour. If the imperialist cat is distracted why not the local rat go out and play?
The other side of this coin is that when problems turn acute, big powers, who cannot afford wasteful distractions, deal with small miscreants with an iron fist. British authorities in India and Lanka turned harsh and ruthless when WW2 broke out. Therefore, though these are early days it is wise to follow events in the Ukraine carefully for two reasons; will our regime use the opportunity to strengthen its authoritarian grip over opposition and minorities, or conversely will the international community give a truant regime short shrift. Indian election results will be out this week and the makeup of the new government will set the tone for race-relations and democracy in Lanka in the next decade. For many reasons therefore this is no time for anyone concerned about democracy in Lanka to lower his guard.
The world has suddenly become even smaller. Globalisation, technology, trade and connectedness have transformed economics and shrunk culture, but gradually; this now is a bit of unexpected extra compression. Other people’s political problems, thus far, did not impact Lanka with relentless force except changes in India (Indira, Rajiv, RAW), and fortuitously China’s recent ability to throw money in the direction of Colombo. This essay argues that this easy stage has passed. The impact of global events on this island has become pronounced.