Russian Defense Minister Gen. Sergey Shoigu finally returned his American counterpart Chuck Hagel’s phone call on April 29. It took a week for the Pentagon to connect the two defense chiefs. US sources familiar with the content of the conversation said that no eavesdropper could have missed the tension in the Russian’s words and tone.
“It was a deliberate façade, which the Russian defense minister apparently needed an entire week to practice,” said one American source.
Shoigu’s responses to the questions put to him turned out to be models of non-information. He had no idea who was stirring up trouble between Washington and Moscow; he was not aware of Russian Army plans to invade eastern Ukraine; and he rubbished claims that the Russian army is massed on the border between the two countries.
According to Shoigu, all Russian troops have stood down and returned to their bases.
The following day, several Ukraine interim government officials said they had lost control of the eastern part of the country and that there was no functioning Ukrainian military, intelligence, or police presence there. The best-case scenario, said a source in Kiev, was that these forces had chosen a neutral stance. Asked to define “neutral stance,” the source said those forces would not act against pro-Russian activists, even if confronted with violence.
Low-paid Ukraine soldiers low on morale
“The wage of an average Ukrainian soldier is the equivalent of 200 dollars a month, and even that isn’t always paid on time,” reported a security source in Kiev. He knows his Russian comrade across the border earns 10 times that much, around USD 2,000 a month.
Morale is further undermined by the knowledge that 60 percent of Ukrainian security personnel in the east support Moscow, not Kiev.
Whether or not the government in Kiev openly acknowledges this reality, it leaves Moscow free to avoid invading eastern Ukraine while asserting its dominant influence through the pro-Russian militias, which are taking city after city from unresisting local security and police forces. The paralyzing apathy gripping Ukrainian forces is infecting western Ukraine as well.
By now, the pro-Russian legions have not only overrun small towns, but control the capitals of two of the three eastern regions, Donetsk, with a population topping a million, where they declared a “popular republic”, and Luhansk (pop. half a million), as well as Horlivka, which has a population of 300,000.
Kiev has lost track of the precise number of Ukrainian cities which have fallen to pro-Russian militias. In an April 29 statement, Ukraine’s interim president Oleksandr Turchynov said “the vast majority of law enforcement officials in the east are not able to fulfill their obligation to protect our citizens.”
Moscow is gaining control of E. Ukraine by proxy
Washington and Europe are leaving the interim government stranded with no more than a pittance for keeping itself afloat. So it is hard to see on what grounds US Secretary of State John Kerry called events in Ukraine a “wake-up call”
Speaking this week, he called on Russia to “leave Ukraine in peace,” and warned that NATO would not accept the Kremlin’s efforts to reshape the region’s security landscape. “Whatever path Russia chooses, the United States and our allies will stand together in our defense of Ukraine,” Kerry said, adding that “most important, together we will have to make it absolutely clear to the Kremlin that NATO territory is inviolable. We will defend every single piece of it.”
If Kerry’s colleague Hagel took the Russian defense minister’s denials seriously, that leaves the question against whom would the US and NATO be defending every last piece of land?
And if Shoigu’s assurances are not accepted, then how will Russia be prevented from advancing stealthily into east Ukraine? By deploying 600 American paratroopers in Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Romania?
Put simply, the only major military power in the field is Russia. That fact is the overriding determinant of events in the Ukraine crisis.
The Americans and the Europeans have not even managed to secure the release of 40 people – including seven European observers – whom pro-Russian separatists abducted and whom they have been holding for nearly a week in Slavyansk.
President Vladimir Putin does not appear to be bothered by US and European sanctions, even though they are biting into the Russian economy. He looks as though he will continue to strengthen Moscow’s grip by proxy on east Ukraine and aim for his next target. Meanwhile, he may be expected to throw a spanner in the Western-backed general election scheduled for this month.