One year ago, on September 5, 2014, a group of Russian agents, armed with smoke grenades, radio jammers, and guns, crossed eight kilometers into NATO territory, subdued a NATO counterintelligence agent and kidnapped him across the border. Eston Kohver (married, father of four) was then tried in Moscow as a spy and, despite inadequate legal representation, he was given 15 years in prison.
On Saturday, Kohver was released back to Estonia, exchanged for a real Russian spy, Aleksei Dressen. Those who follow news on Saturdays applauded Kohver’s return to his family, but one has to wonder whether he was kidnapped just to make this exchange possible. One also has to wonder if Kohver’s release was cynically timed with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to the United Nations General Assembly.
One year ago, on September 5, 2014, the same day Kohver was kidnapped, Russia signed an agreement in Minsk, Belarus, with representatives of Europe, Ukraine, and the Russian-backed separatists who have been waging war in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine. That agreement, the Minsk Protocol, was supposed to end the fighting, return the border between Russia and Ukraine to the Ukrainian military, and establish local elections, governed by Ukrainian law and monitored by international observers. In short, what is now known as “Minsk I” was supposed to return peace and order to a single, unified Ukraine (ignoring Crimea, the peninsula which Russia illegally annexed in March 2014).
This diplomatic “breakthrough,” however, was negotiated at the point of a gun—a Russian gun; or rather a small army of Russian special forces, volunteers, armored and airborne units, tanks, multiple-launch rocket launchers, advanced anti-aircraft systems (including the one that shot down civilian airliner MH17 just a month and a half earlier), and a seemingly infinite supply of ammunition and fuel to keep the war machine running. In fact, as a recently published report I coauthored establishes, Russian troops led every major battle between May 2014 and today, taking advantage of the nominal “ceasefire” to expand proxy-controlled territory in a more gradual (and arguably less expensive) way.
And in eastern Ukraine today, the carnage left by last year’s invasion by tens of thousands of Russian troops, tanks, and other heavy weapons, has been replaced by a permanent, foreign occupation of European soil. Each day violence is reported near the border between territory Ukraine controls and the edge of “Novorossiya,” or “New Russia,” the territory controlled by Russian proxies and occupied by Russian military units and war machines. Now explosions and terrorist acts are regularly reported on both sides of the line of demarcation (though, thankfully, few claim actual lives). Ukraine continues to increase its military spending to match this threat, despite having to cut back government spending overall.
It is the poor who suffer the most, and there are many of them since more than a million Ukrainians have been internally displaced because of the illegal annexation of Crimea and the fighting in the Donbass. In territory controlled by Russian proxies, the Russian ruble—which has rapidly deteriorated in recent months—is replacing the Ukrainian hryvnia as the currency in a kind of “creeping institutionalization,” which violates both the spirit and letter of the Minsk Protocol. The UN warns of a growing humanitarian crisis, but UN aid workers have just been forced out by the “de facto authorities” who run Donetsk and Lugansk.
The international community placed Russia in the driver’s seat of diplomatic efforts to ensure that conditions agreed to by Russian-backed proxies were adhered to. Not only did Russia fail to hold up its end of the bargain, it continues to increase military support for the Russian-backed fighters. This month, the Secretary General for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the international body which the Minsk Protocol placed in charge of monitoring the ceasefire, confirmed to this author something he told a conference in Kiev earlier in the day—the “militants” in eastern Ukraine continue to get stronger, supplied by an outside source, despite yet another ceasefire that was supposed to go into effect on Sept. 1 of this year.
Kim Sengupta of The Independent recently interviewed other aid workers and NGOs in Donetsk who are in the process of pulling out, fleeing physical violence and intimidation against their workers and bureaucratic conditions imposed by the “leaders” which the Russian military installed. Meanwhile, dozens of Western and Ukrainian reporters have said, some privately to this author and some publicly, that they have had their “accreditation” pulled by the Russian-backed proxies. Russia and its proxies, it seems, do not want the outside world to see what happens in territories that they have effectively and illegally annexed.
Despite the stark realities on the ground in Ukraine—undisputed by all except those who openly support or work for the Kremlin or those who have no familiarity with the facts—the fighting has decreased since this new ceasefire, and Russia is once again engaging with the international community, some of which is hailing this false “peace” as a victory for diplomatic relations with Moscow.
And now Russian soldiers and jets, some of which are being shipped from Russian-occupied Crimea and led the invasion of Ukraine, are building their presence in Syria. There are calls, in the Western media and perhaps even from political advisers to President Obama, to work with Vladimir Putin to help solve the crisis in Syria.
It is against this backdrop that Putin’s speech (PDF) to the United Nations General Assembly must be assessed. Putin used his first address in a decade at Turtle Bay to lay out his peculiar vision for “peace” in the world, particularly in the Middle East. It was a speech filled with lies and distortions that have become the dominant worldview inside the Kremlin and propagated outward on state-controlled media. According to Putin, the Soviet Union made a key mistake—creating “‘social experiments’ for export” based on “ideological preferences” which led to “tragic consequences.” Putin then said that the world was doing the same thing by “the export of revolutions, this time of so-called ‘democratic’ ones.” He claimed that the West fomented a “military coup” in Ukraine and was busy cutting secretive trade deals to expand its own economic sphere of influence. In reality, the European Union’s Association Agreement with Ukraine was negotiated out in the open; the former Yanukovych government even campaigned on its promise; and Putin had earlier expressed his support for Ukraine’s signing it. Until he didn’t.
Putin even hinted darkly that ISIS was a Western invention designed to weaken or overthrow “secular” autocratic regimes. In reality, his client Bashar al-Assad spent a decade underwriting al-Qaeda in Iraq, the predecessor of ISIS, including by dispatching into Iraq foreign jihadists freshly arrived in Damascus for the purpose of blowing up U.S. coalition and Iraqi forces. This relationship continued until at least 2009. When the Syrian uprising began, Assad released from prison many of the jihadists his security organs arrested upon their return to Syria, knowing that they’d radicalize what started as a peaceful protest movement. According to IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center, of all the military operations Assad’s regime waged in 2014, the minority were against ISIS, and ISIS returned the favor. Both parties instead preferred to annihilate the moderate opposition which Putin today insists simply never existed in Syria; in some instances, Assad’s warplanes have even bombed targets the jihadists’ ground forces were simultaneously besieging. To this day, ISIS sells oil it pumps from seized Syrian refineries back to Damascus. Assad is both a duplicitous and failed counterterrorist.
Now add to this Putin’s fondness for Iran, the Iranian-controlled paramilitary Hezbollah, and the Iranian-influenced government of Iraq, all of which Russia is now sharing intelligence with and, in the case of the first two, coordinating joint military operations with in northern Syria, according to recent press reports. In other words, two of the world’s leading state sponsors of terrorism, and an actual terrorist organization, are what Putin is presenting to the West as its single best and last hope for combating terrorism. Meanwhile, his definition of the t-word is broad enough to encompass all Syrian opponents of Assad, including those who, far from wanting to blow up American planes, would sooner have them keep barrel bombs and chlorine gas away. (He even had the temerity to compare this emerging new regional axis to an “anti-Hitler coalition,” perhaps forgetting that the Soviet Union’s compact with the Third Reich inaugurated World War II with the invasion and carve-up of Poland, Romania, Finland, and the Baltic states.)
Putin’s strategy—in Georgia, Estonia, in Ukraine, and now in Syria—is transparently simple. He wishes to define himself as the defender of independent nations who dare to defy Western imperialists and their puppet states. In Putin’s rhetoric, anti-authoritarian revolutions are Western proxy wars, “human rights violations” are excuses for Western annexation of sovereign governments, economic agreements designed to modernize economies and defensive pacts voluntarily signed in light of Russian aggression are really daggers pointed at the Russian Motherland. And anyone who defies Russia or its allies is either a “terrorist” or a “Nazi.”