Ukraine and Russia; war or referendum?

The enormous and menacing concentration of Russian troops on the borders with Ukraine and in annexed Crimea was best seen from space. This is probably why it has been noticed all over the world. Hundreds of tanks and planes, more than 120,000 troops from all over the Russian Federation have been moved to Ukraine under the pretext of military exercises. He signaled a threat not only to Ukraine and its leadership, but also to NATO.

For twenty years, Russia has scared its citizens with stories about NATO’s plans to destroy the Russian Federation. The Soviet Union and its NATO counterpart – the Warsaw Pact bloc – collapsed partly because of Western efforts, but also partly because of its own economic and political failure. And the other former Warsaw Pact countries have long been NATO members. Several years ago, under President Petro Poroshenko, the intention to join NATO and the European Union was also enshrined in the Ukrainian constitution. Sooner or later it can happen, and some military analysts believe it will make war between Russia and NATO inevitable. However, everything will depend on Russia, not NATO. And in the current tense situation in Ukraine, everything also depends on Russia and President Putin.

Slovak artist Rado Javor renders the heroism of Artem Abramovych, 24, a tank commander, who in 2014 deliberately struck his T-64 against a Russian T-72 to save Ukrainian soldiers retreating to the oblast from Donetsk. He was posthumously awarded the Order of Heroes of Ukraine | courtesy of: Euromaidan Press

The war in Donbass started seven years ago, although for two years this conflict has been officially considered to be in a state of “truce”. The truce is broken every day. The front line between the Ukrainian army and separatist military formations is 427 kilometers long. Minefields have been installed along the entire length of this line. There is a high concentration of guns and mortars, with snipers also at work. Sometimes as many as 300 ceasefire violations occur in a day. Surprisingly, Ukrainian soldiers are often forbidden to retaliate.

The current escalation started some time ago in early February. On February 3, Ukraine’s Security Council, an emergency decision-making body for threats to national security, decided to impose sanctions on oligarch Viktor Medvedchuk, a friend of Putin’s family. The Security Council has ordered the closure of three television channels belonging to Medvedchuk. These channels had been broadcasting pro-Russian propaganda for many years and defending the interests of the Kremlin. Moscow’s reaction was immediate; the number of attacks on the Ukrainian army by pro-Russian separatists has increased significantly.

At the same time, the water supply of the annexed Crimea worsened. Before annexation, water for the peninsula came from Ukraine via the North Crimean Canal. Water supply has long been a major problem in Crimea, with inconsistent availability. After the annexation, the canal was closed and the water situation deteriorated from year to year. Moscow promised to build seawater desalination plants, but apparently it didn’t have enough money. In practice, Russia pays for the upkeep of both Crimea and the Donbass territories seized by the separatists. Russia also maintains, at its expense, the territories taken from Georgia and Moldova. Lately, due to sanctions and low oil prices, Russia’s revenues have declined and the burden of financing the occupied territories is particularly heavy.

The so-called “Luhansk People’s Republic” and “Donetsk People’s Republic” receive less money from Russia than is needed to survive. The only thing Russia still generously supplies them is arms, ammunition and fuel for the military. Two years ago, Putin hoped that Ukraine under President Zelensky would take back those territories as autonomous regions and shoulder the burden of maintenance. Now he seems to have realized that is not going to happen. This probably led him to say that it made no sense for him to meet Zelensky. After several similar statements, the transfer of Russian troops to the Ukrainian border began.

Cartoon by Yuriy Zhuravel depicts Putin rejected by other children. Discouraged, he leaves to play alone with his small chariot | courtesy: France24

In 2019, after winning the presidential election, Zelensky said he would come to an agreement with Putin, end the war and reclaim the occupied territories. Two years later, Zelensky lost his optimism and stopped promising anything. Moreover, he understands full well that any attempt to satisfy Putin’s demands – the main demand being water for Crimea – will cause street protests or another Maidan in Ukraine. The movement “No surrender! is already active in Ukraine. Among the activists of this movement, many are veterans of the Donbass War. For this reason, Zelensky has no choice but to be fiercely opposed to Russia and Putin and to hope for help from the United States and the European Union.

Ukraine’s western allies take a dim view of the danger of another war, which could easily escalate into a global conflict. In addition, the latest escalation of tensions between Ukraine and Russia occurred against the backdrop of scandals linked to the actions of Russian special services in the EU. Recently, authorities in the Czech Republic and Bulgaria admitted that it was Russian agents who detonated weapons depots in these countries in 2014 and 2015. There is evidence that the destroyed weapons were intended for the Russian Federation. Ukraine.

Apparently, this time the United States also believed in the possibility of the outbreak of war. This is why President Biden was the first to call Putin, and after speaking to him, he called off the planned deployment of US warships to the Black Sea, which was planned as a sign of support for Ukraine. When Russia announced the end of “military exercises”, many sighed with relief. However, the situation has only temporarily improved. No one except Putin knows the Russian leadership’s next steps in relation to Ukraine.

Ukrainian leaders appear to take the threat of the outbreak of Russian hostilities seriously. This is probably why there is evidence that steps are being taken to pacify Russia. Such actions have consequences. Recently, by decree of the Prime Minister of Ukraine, the control of the management of the North Crimean Canal, through which water was previously supplied from the Dnieper River to the Crimea, was transferred from the State Water Agency to the Ministry of Agriculture. This strange manipulation only indicates a desire to meet one of Putin’s demands. Such a water supply would create in Russia the feeling that it is now possible to induce Ukraine to make similar concessions beneficial to the Kremlin. For patriotic Ukrainians, however, this step would be tantamount to surrender.

In addition, Zelensky signed a decree on the use of the referendum, which he proposed immediately after his election to the presidency, and which was duly adopted by Parliament. It is very possible that Zelensky will put the unresolved issues with Russia regarding the Donbass and water for Crimea to a referendum, and decisions will be made based on the subsequent results.

In Ukraine there is a real fear of war with Russia. Much of the population does not care whether Ukraine supplies Crimea with water, even considering that it was stolen by Russia. In addition, most people in eastern and southern Ukraine still hold pro-Russian views. In view of this, in the referendum, people may well vote as Russia wants. And then with President Zelensky and his entourage shirking all responsibility, the Ukrainian people themselves will “surrender” to Russia.

(Malayalam translation published on May 2, 2021 in the Mathrubhumi weekend edition)