Continued from part 1.
…Jan related a very interesting piece of information regarding the circumstances of the Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 (MH 17) which was shot down by separatists on July 17, 2014 using a Russian anti-aircraft Buk missile system.
According to his contacts, the separatists had in fact tried to shoot down three civilian planes that day, but only hit one. Another plane escaped, while yet another was forced to land at the Donetsk airport and eventually, with help of Ukrainian forces serving as a distraction and the cover of fog, was able to take off and evade the separatists who were targeting it.
Jan showed me the video of this plane taking off. I haven’t found evidence to support this information, but there were several other planes in the area when MH 17 was shot down. Jan speculated that the shooting down of of MH 17 could well have been the result of extreme recklessness by heavily inebriated separatists, who were provided with the anti-aircraft missile system by the Russian military, but were not necessarily directed by them.
The information about the other planes may have been suppressed to avoid panicking the public.
Jan’s experiences in Ukraine left a strong imprint on his psyche. He said that he tried not to reflect on whether he did or didn’t kill someone in battle, “its war after all.” His greatest sympathy was for the helpless civilians with no shelter and no defense.
He recalled a humorous situation where he came across a Polish reporter from the Polsat news service, well behind the front lines, crouching in front of a destroyed building. While he was being filmed, he related to viewers the dangerous conditions that he was in on the front. Jan stood nearby smoking a cigarette in amusement. He says he never saw any journalists near the actual fighting.
He said it was hard to speak of a “Ukrainian Army”, since so many men were deserting and running away from the conflict. Indeed the transports and other vehicles were from the army, but the soldiers were a varied mix of the aforementioned professional troops, volunteers (many of them enthusiasts and reckless adventurers, since there was no money to be made as mercenaries) and thousands of inexperienced conscripts ranging in age from 18 to 70.
These men were patriotic to be sure, but often perilously unprepared for war.
According to Jan the negotiated ceasefire was a fiction and regular warfare continues in eastern Ukraine, with soldiers and civilians on both sides dying every day. He believes that Putin picked the right moment to annex Crimea, taking it over without firing a shot, but miscalculated in thinking that other parts of Ukraine would also go bloodlessly.
He also believes that the conflict has gone on too far to end now and that Putin won’t stop until he establishes a land bridge from Russia through Luhansk, Debalcevo and Mariupol on to Crimea. [The building of the Kerch Bridge from Russia to Crimea may prevent this eventuality, but corruption and other problems will delay its completion until at least 2018.]
He says that most Ukrainians, perhaps as many as three-quarters, are glad that the majority-Russian Crimea is no longer a part of their country, since it was not bringing in revenues. While Crimea was a drain on Ukraine’s economy before, the curious situation has arisen where Russia is in fact paying Ukraine for electricity and water to be supplied there, while the fighting continues.
Though Putin’s aggressive behavior has rightfully put Europe on the defensive, it’s difficult to imagine him occupying other parts of Ukraine where the economy is in a tragic state. In Jan’s estimation, once the “people’s republics” have been established and a corridor to Crimea is achieved, Putin won’t bother Ukraine anymore, though threatening rhetoric will likely continue.
In terms of aid from the west, Jan didn’t notice anything in the way of weapons or advisers in the areas where he fought through early 2015. If weapons and western specialists were provided one year ago when the fighting started, it might have made a difference to reshape the conflict, but he thinks it’s now too late and events have taken a life of their own.
The west seems to have taken the opposite course in fact by muting their criticism of Putin, while quietly backing down from the embargoes. Jan believes that the west doesn’t have a strong interest in Ukraine because it’s not economically productive and maintaining some semblance of relations with Russia is far more important than protecting Ukrainian independence.
A troubling aspect of the events in Ukraine which ultimately discouraged Jan from continuing his support is the rise of the Right Sector whose nationalist membership considers the World War II-era, Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) an “army of liberation” and their political leader, Stepan Bandera, a hero.
Among historians, the UPA is held responsible for the ethnic cleansing of the Volhynia region (formerly south-eastern Poland, now western Ukraine), where as many as sixty thousand Polish men, women and children were killed in 1943-44. At least several thousand Ukrainians were killed in reprisal attacks.
This painful and tragic chapter in the history of Poland and Ukraine has yet to be properly addressed.
The influx of Ukrainians into Poland has been dramatic and not a day goes by as I walk the streets of Warsaw that I don’t hear Ukrainians speaking in Russian or Ukrainian. I’ve made a number of friends in the past year who have come to Poland to work or study and say that they have no plans to return to Ukraine save for visiting family there, since their opportunities in the country are virtually non-existent.
Even without military conflict, Ukraine’s future appears bleak. Unless reforms stifle rampant corruption, no good prospects can be expected in the near term. According to Jan’s conversations with friends and other Ukrainians, the current government doesn’t have popular support and Ukrainians still don’t have real representatives.
The United States and Europe are right to bolster defenses in Eastern Europe and rethink their tactics and strategy, given the new forms of unconventional warfare demonstrated in Ukraine by Russian forces. Putin’s aggressive actions in eastern Ukraine however, should be seen as a distraction from Russia’s ailing economy of recent years, rather than the prelude to broader action.
The issue of Russia’s aggressive rhetoric and shows of force towards Europe and the Baltic states in particular, differs from the situation in Ukraine, though both serve as a popularity-enhancing tactics for Putin amongst Russians.
A local conflict in the Donbass and nearby regions against poorly trained and equipped opponents is one thing, while a direct confrontation with the European Union and NATO would mean war with the west, against the world’s most capable, advanced and experienced fighting force, the U.S. military.
Such an event isn’t impossible to imagine, but the consequences of such action would likely be far more severe than Russia can bear.