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April 01st 2015 print

Ulla Terkelsen and Askold Krushelnycky

Points of the Compass: Copenhagen and Mariupol

Askold Krushelnycky writes from Ukraine:

The supposed ceasefire in Ukraine has been regarded as a bad joke since it began by the country’s soldiers manning the front lines east of the port city of Mariupol, which pro-Moscow separatists, backed by regular Russian troops, have vowed to capture.

I arrived in the city on the Azov Sea coast amidst fierce fighting between the Ukrainian and pro-Russian forces the day before the ceasefire began. In the three weeks that followed there was only one night when the guns were more or less silent. For nearly two weeks the Russian forces continued to use heavy artillery to shell the Ukrainian defenders’ positions, in contravention of the ceasefire terms.

ukraine catIn the third week they mostly used smaller weapons—mortar, rocket-propelled grenades and small arms fire. In the last week or so though, the Russian side has reportedly increasingly resumed using artillery, large calibre mortar and tank fire.

Hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers have died during this ceasefire. The Ukrainians know—from their own observations and satellite reconnaissance by the USA and NATO—that separatists and Russian men and materiel are regrouping in preparation for a renewed assault on the Mariupol front and elsewhere in Ukraine’s embattled east.

I spent three weeks embedded with the 37th Mechanised Infantry Battalion, whose some 430 men are mostly from around the eastern Ukrainian city of Zaporizhya. The 37th Battalion is one of a score of volunteer battalions that sprung up after the separatist rebellion, instigated by Russian President Vladimir Putin, began bloodily taking over swathes of south-eastern Ukraine.

When the fighting started last spring, Ukraine had approximately 4000 combat-ready troops, serving in a military debilitated by corruption. The military’s best weapons had been sold off and training was minimal. So many Ukrainians last spring began organising themselves into volunteer battalions.

ukraine T72The 37th Battalion was formed last September at the initiative of a group of former Soviet airborne forces officers and men who had kept in touch through veterans’ organisations. Many of them had seen action in the Soviet Afghan War in the 1980s. Other seasoned Soviet-era veterans also enrolled, bringing much experience and professionalism to the 37th Battalion but also raising the average age of its members to forty. Most of its recruits—aged between nineteen and sixty-three—have some military experience either in Soviet or independent Ukraine’s forces, although some had none and received only three weeks’ training before being sent to the front.

The 37th Battalion’s fifty-five-year-old commander, Alexander Lobas, who served in Soviet airborne and then Ukraine’s armed forces, retiring as a lieutenant-colonel, said: “We couldn’t stand by and watch this new Hitler, Putin, occupy our land.”

The battalions operate under the overall command of the Ukrainian army. While the government now provides basic weapons, ammunition, fuel and meagre salaries—the top ones are some $300 per month—the men initially equipped and outfitted themselves. Like the other battalions the 37th is dependent on the support of ordinary people and occasional wealthier patrons, who donate funds, food, warm clothing, boots, summer and winter camouflage netting or snipers’ outfits, individual medical packs, rations and other necessary items.

Like two other battalions from eastern Ukraine I have spent time with, the 37th are overwhelmingly Russian-speakers. I mention that because Putin’s propaganda endlessly claims Russian-speakers are persecuted in Ukraine. Putin’s propaganda machine has also tried to claim Ukrainian Russian-speakers as supporters of Moscow and has even suggested they are more or less equivalent to ethnic Russians. Some seven years ago Putin created a Russian law allowing his forces to come to the aid of Russian-speakers in former parts of the Soviet empire—the doctrine justifying the Georgia intervention and the annexation of Crimea.

Putin may have deluded himself that Russian-speakers really wanted to be part of his sinister “Ruskiy Mir”—Russian world. Putin was likely startled that most in Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine so vehemently rejected his vision of creating a Moscow satrapy called Novorossiya out of the country’s east and south to the extent that they have become his fiercest military opponents. Some in the 37th Battalion are not just Russian-speaking Ukrainians but actually Russian ethnics who live in Ukraine and hate the despotism Putin has created in Russia.

The 37th Battalion’s base is at a former state-owned truck repair facility in the east of Mariupol. The battalion’s few dilapidated 1980s tanks and other armoured vehicles as well as trucks and cars are kept going far beyond their natural life-spans here. The front lines begin some five miles east around the town of Sherokyno. The 37th and two other battalions man concrete barricaded checkpoints on the roads leading to the front. The front itself is a line stretching northwards from Sherokyno and is composed of trenches and bunkers eerily reminiscent of First World War defences.

ukraine3The bunkers are dug around seven feet into the ground with five people sharing four beds—at least one is always on guard—in a space like a very small garden shed. A little stove is used for cooking and heating and every square inch is stuffed with ammunition, weapons, canned food, lanterns, communications equipment and other supplies.

At the crumps of exploding shells there is laughter. One of the men, Misha, said: “Hear that? That’s the sound of the ceasefire!” Misha, twenty-four, is a skilled building worker who lived in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, for three years before returning to his native Zaporizhya when he heard a battalion was being formed there. He said:

We have to abide by the ceasefire and our government allows us to fire back only if we are being directly attacked. A few days ago we could fire because the Russians were advancing with tanks. We destroyed one of their tanks and stopped them less than a kilometre away. But we are sitting ducks and everyone knows the Russians will attack again. It’s a matter of when, not if.

Vadim, thirty-two, emigrated with his wife to California several years ago but returned to join the battalion. He said: “We were in San Diego and building a good life for ourselves but I couldn’t watch what was happening and do nothing. I joined up because it’s our duty to protect our country.” He has great faith that America will eventually arm Ukraine. He said: “We don’t need Americans or anyone else fighting for us—we can do that for ourselves. But we need the weapons because the Russians have much more and better armour than us.” He believes that US Javelin “tank-killer” missiles could do much to level the battlefield in the way that Stinger anti-aircraft missiles provided to the Afghans fighting the Soviet invasion in the 1980s turned around that conflict.

Gennady is fifty and had done national service before working in Zaporizhya for twenty years as a teacher. He said:

I’m a teacher and a peaceful man but I am fighting because we have to stop Putin here before he advances further. Mariupol is in Donetsk region which adjoins our Zaporizhya region. We’re next on this little psychopath’s list and I don’t want Russian shells raining down on the heads of my children and grandchildren.

Throughout the conflict Putin has denied that any regular Russian forces or equipment are in Ukraine—although Ukrainian forces have captured Russian troops and tanks numerous times. Last year Putin repeatedly denied that the Russian-speaking, well-armed troops without identifying insignia that had invaded Crimea were his men. Later, after Moscow annexed Crimea, Putin admitted the soldiers had been Russian regulars but glibly said everyone understood why he had to lie at that time. A few days ago he boasted that he ordered preparations for Crimea’s annexation weeks in advance. Kremlin documents, possibly deliberately leaked by Putin’s administration, reveal the invasion of Crimea had been planned even earlier—a year before it happened.

But, although he admitted lying to the whole world about his troops not being in Crimea, Putin demands that world accepts he has nothing to do with the conflict and Russia does not have a military presence there. In the same way Putin indignantly asserts that the Malaysian airliner, despite overwhelming evidence, was not shot down over Ukraine last year by a Russian anti-air missile and that he is not connected to the recent murder of one of his most vigorous political opponents, Boris Nemtsov.

The ceasefire, which was supposed to begin on February 15, came as Ukraine’s army was taking a battering from the pro-Moscow forces, backed by thousands of Russian regular troops and hundreds of tanks, armoured personnel carriers, heavy artillery and mobile missile arrays which had been seen pouring into Ukraine from Russia.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande took the lead in pushing for the ceasefire. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko had been criticised by his military and countrymen for agreeing to a previous Brussels-brokered ceasefire, which had been ceaselessly breached by the Russian side, who have  killed hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers and seized territory.

Poroshenko had been pleading for the USA and Western Europe to drop its ban on supplying Ukraine with weapons to enable it to, if not defeat the Russian army, which outnumbers Ukraine’s by at least ten to one, then at least to cause it so much pain as to give Putin pause for thought.

But Merkel is vehemently against supplying Ukraine with weapons—claiming such a move would enrage Putin to even more violence—and has urged US President Barack Obama not to send weapons either. Washington does not want a rift in the West’s response to Putin’s aggression and has so far said it is still considering weapons provision despite a bipartisan call to do so by an impressive array of senior American politicians.

The 37th Battalion commander, Colonel Lobas, like most of his comrades, is dismayed that the West has limited its support for Ukraine to sanctions against Russia. He said: “They make us die because we are supposed to stick to a ceasefire which is fictional. Even as the Russians continue to break the ceasefire the West pretends that there is progress and insists that more of us die.”

And Putin, the once and forever KGB man, who runs his Russian administration as if it was a great and particularly dark psychological special operation assault, seems to have succeeded into forcing many of the West’s leaders to behave as if they accept his skewed and mendacious “reality”. Few of them until recently have openly challenged Putin’s insistence that he has not sent Russian regulars and vast amounts of weapons to Ukraine, although Western governments have for months had ample evidence that Russian troops are present and Russian generals are directing the fighting in Ukraine. The US Ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt, said: “The separatists now have more tanks, APCs, artillery and missile systems than some European NATO countries.”

Putin uses as pretexts for his actions in Ukraine the protection of Russian-speakers and the threat of NATO aggression. But not a single example of a Ukrainian government somehow persecuting Russian-speakers has ever come to light. Eastern Ukraine’s population and its leaders, bureaucrats and police are overwhelmingly Russian-speaking, and for most of the time since Ukraine’s independence in 1991 its presidents and prime ministers have been Russian-speakers and from eastern Ukraine.

When it comes to NATO Putin has pulled off a mesmerising mind trick. Many Western leaders—who, because they run NATO, know the military alliance has never threatened Russia—feel they have to behave as if they accept that Putin believes Russia is indeed threatened. A former US Navy liaison officer, Kevin O’Brien, who spent four years with the Ukrainian navy at its Crimean headquarters, has written in an MA thesis:

The Russian attack on Ukraine has been a masterful use of the Russian military concept of maskirovka. Maskirovka is literally translated as mask, or in a military sense, camouflage. It has developed as a term for all operational, tactical and strategic deception in support of political or military objectives.

This maskirovka, in conjunction with fifteen years of relentless propaganda and press censorship, has convinced much of Russia’s population that NATO is readying for invasion. It has manoeuvred Western leaders into a position where they are responding to the distorted surrealistic world Putin has conjured up as if it were the real one.

O’Brien says that because of Putin’s experience and knowledge “it is difficult to accept his anti-NATO posturing at face value. If, then, there is no existential threat from NATO, and Putin is well aware of this fact, then what is the existential threat to Russia in the case of Ukraine? There is none.” Many Ukrainians are dismayed though that Putin’s mendacious version of the world, where Ukraine poses a threat, is indulged at the cost of their lives.

Lobas said that after the ceasefire was signed the Russians simply continued their attacks, particularly at the key railway hub town of Debaltseve. The regular Russian army played a pivotal role in capturing the town, which fell after several hundred Ukrainian soldiers were killed. “Yet despite all the blatant disregard for the ceasefire some of the Western leaders insist the agreement has not broken down completely and we, Ukrainians, are made to keep to it while the Russians keep killing us and taking more of our country,” he said.

Many Ukrainian fighters, politicians and ordinary people say that they will fight a guerrilla war if the country’s conventional forces are incapacitated.

Lobas said that Putin sees the West’s persistence with the make-believe ceasefire and refusal to arm Ukraine as weakness:

Putin will press on with his aggression because he only understands violence and can only be stopped by force. We have to carry on fighting whatever happens as we know that if Russia wins we will face execution or be sent to the new Gulags Putin will reopen in Siberia.

One influential fighter said:

Does the West want peace at the expense of the death of my country? There won’t be peace because we will not only fight the Russians here but our guerrillas will attack in Russia. There are millions of Ukrainians living in Russia and many have already said they will launch operations to sabotage Russia’s oil and gas industry and attack targets in Moscow and the Kremlin itself.

He warned that one of the first targets would be the vital gas pipeline that runs across Ukraine from Russia to Western Europe and is Moscow’s largest single stream of income.

In Mariupol people are still going to work and the trams and buses are still running and the street markets are bustling. But behind the calm facade there is great apprehension. People are trying to stock up on food, buying staples like rice and pasta with a currency that has lost two thirds of its value in a year.

The blown-out windows in high-rises, burned car wrecks, and a crater in a school playground are reminders that in January separatists fired an estimated 120 missiles into the city killing around thirty people and wounding many others. The scorched skeleton of Mariupol’s police headquarters, destroyed when separatists captured the city for a couple of months last year, and the destruction wrought when Ukrainian forces retook it last June, have given the city’s inhabitants a nasty taste of what could yet come.

The city’s population is reckoned to have been evenly split between pro-Moscow and pro-Ukrainian sentiment before the conflict began. Now the Ukrainian side estimates that between 30 to 40 per cent are pro-Russian. Most of the people I spoke to in Mariupol said they wanted to be part of Ukraine. But some refused to speak when I introduced myself as a British journalist, perhaps reluctant to identify themselves as pro-Russians.

One seventy-three-year-old man, Igor (who, like many others did not want to give his last name) said he had been a high school teacher of history but also a committed Communist Party member working in Mariupol’s propaganda department. He said:

I know how propaganda works and many of the people in Mariupol have been totally taken in by Moscow’s propaganda, as they watched Russian TV for years. I think that before the conflict began around 60 per cent of people here were for Kyiv and 40 per cent pro-separatist. Having seen the behaviour of the separatists who have brought banditry and ruin to the areas they control, more people here are now in favour of Kyiv. I think the separatists have 30 percent support at most.

I attended a public meeting where some 300 people packed a hall at Mariupol’s university to meet visiting representatives of Ukraine’s parliament. There were no overt separatist sentiments although there were some criticisms of the government. Most people seemed genuinely pro-Kyiv and talked about the conflict with the implied assumption that Moscow was responsible for the conflict.

For days rumours have been swirling that Putin has been removed by murder or putsch and his replacement might prosecute the war against Ukraine even more vigorously. Kyiv is still readying for another major Russian assault that this time might involve Moscow opening new fronts aimed at capturing Kharkiv and Dnipropetrovsk, the twin centres of Ukraine’s huge weapons industry, which makes tanks, planes, aviation engines, rocket stages for missiles (including Russia’s ICBMs) and other equipment needed by Moscow’s military.

Askold Krushelnycky has been a foreign correspondent for British newspapers including the Sunday Times and the European, covering Central and Eastern Europe extensively. Since the start of turmoil in Ukraine in 2013 he has reported as a freelancer on events there. He is the author of An Orange Revolution: A Personal Journey Through Ukrainian History (2006). He lives in Washington, DC.

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Ulla Terkelsen writes from Denmark:

The Danish word for to be is vaere. Its opposite is undvaere. It’s a simple word, but not too simple. You might say that you cannot undvaere your glasses because without them you can’t read. But you can also say to a person you love that you cannot undvaere him or her … that your being, your life, cannot go on without him or her in it.

After a terrorist had shot and killed a Jewish doorman at the Copenhagen synagogue where thirteen-year-old Hannah and her family were entertaining eighty guests for her bat mitzvah in the Jewish community hall behind it, Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt turned up at the synagogue the following morning. She arrived to do what political leaders usually do on such solemn occasions: to kneel down, to lay her flowers at the railing, to express words of compassion, words of horror, to the representatives of the Jewish community who accompanied her.

Then she suddenly turned around and looked straight into the television cameras, directly addressing Denmark’s Jews who were that morning in a state of total shock. She said to them: “We cannot undvaere you.” We cannot live without you. We do not want to live without you.

There and then the whole of Denmark burst into tears. We all sobbed—loudly—including perhaps the Little Mermaid sitting on her stone in the sea in the cold midwinter. Old Danes, remembering the war and Denmark’s famous boat rescue of her Jews fleeing the Nazis across to Sweden, nodded knowingly while they too sobbed. This is how it should be, they thought. This is what Danes should say to their Jewish compatriots and to each other. This is how Danes should feel faced with terrorism: that we cannot undvaere each other. The terrorists shall not succeed in dividing us.

muslims danish flagThe voluntary doorman guarding Hannah’s party died because he was Jewish. He had not drawn cartoons of the Prophet nor expressed a view on the rights or wrongs of drawing them. But the attacks had also cost a film director his life because he “dared” attend a meeting about the famous cartoons of the Prophet “and all that”. He risked—and lost—his life defending a principle. But both had been killed, and both deserved to be mourned.

It was suddenly very clear to most Danes that we were together against terrorism and that what had happened was directed at that togetherness and so against all of us. A nation is a family and the victims were members of our family. You do not want to undvaere members of your own family.

So the synagogue in Krystalgade (Crystal Street) in a lovely old part of Copenhagen had experienced its own Kristallnacht. On the first “Crystal Night”—November 9, 1938—synagogues, Jewish institutions and Jewish-owned properties were attacked all over Germany. Most non-Jews either applauded or looked away. But on the evening after Copenhagen’s Crystal Night, 42,000 Copenhageners gathered and stood in silence before the café where the film director had been killed at the Free Speech meeting, to show their togetherness. They listened to John Lennon’s “Imagine”. By then the Krystalgade was carpeted in flowers.

These attacks changed the debate about the legendary “cartoons”—the satirical drawings in the Danish newspaper Jyllandsposten some years ago mocking the Prophet Mohammad in the style of Charlie Hebdo. The highly relevant (but in Denmark by now well-trodden) debate on “Does the right to say what you want mean that you have to say it?” did not restart. Much more was now at stake: our lives, our way of living, our relaxed and open dealings with each other, in short, everything.

The frightening thing is that probably most Danes—like most Frenchmen after the Charlie Hebdo shootings—thought that the terrorist attacks would have happened anyway, sooner or later, satirical cartoons or not. Like the Charlie Hebdo attack, the Copenhagen attacks were an excuse for the terrorists. As in France, the terrorists seemed to calculate, “While we are at it, we might as well kill some Jews as well.”

Is that Europe in 2015? Yes. Oh yes.

The immigration debate has been raging in Denmark, as in all other European countries, for decades. It is often linked to anti-European Union sentiment, since in the eyes of many Danish citizens European Union rules—open borders in the Schengen agreement, free movement of labour and thus of people under the EU’s founding treaties—make it easier for terrorists to move freely about the continent. As in other European countries this sentiment has also given rise to an anti-immigration party: the Danish People’s Party. This party claims that the erosion of the nation-state by the European Union, aggravated by the large numbers of non-European immigrants settling in the country, undermines cultural and social cohesion. Too many immigrants, they think, will ruin the extremely precious—for Scandinavians—but expensive welfare state in the long run.

danish flowersThose who sympathise with the People’s Party have naturally seen the violent attacks on the earliest and best-known of the Prophet-cartoonists, Kurt Westergaard, who now lives under constant police protection, as one proof of their case. If people of totally different attitudes are forced to live together, they say, that will ultimately lead to conflict and violence and restrictions on freedom of expression. Like Marine le Pen of the National Front in France, they see the Copenhagen attacks as yet another proof of their sombre predictions. It was inevitable, they say today, and we warned for many years against it. In the 1968 words of the conservative British politician and classical scholar Enoch Powell, they saw “the river Tiber foaming with much blood”.

But there is a strong counter-opinion in Denmark that also sees the attacks as tragically inevitable, but for different reasons. They see the admission of many immigrants (whether political refugees or economic migrants) by a rich country like Denmark as a moral duty: since we live in a globalised age, let’s open our doors. But they go on to argue that Denmark has not received newcomers properly as new citizens, but merely as temporary guests. And that has created serious problems.

Integration failed; immigrants stayed alien; they do lousy jobs. We paid for them with high taxes but we never made them part of our national family. So they feel alienated from the vast majority of liberated, rich, well-educated Scandinavians. And when the Islamist call-to-arms sounds around the world, young Muslims in Denmark are naturally drawn to holy war, not unlike young Muslims everywhere else. They are offered an identity that way, and they grab it enthusiastically, because they have no Danish identity of their own. For this many Danes would place a large portion of guilt on Denmark and on themselves—in part at least because well-intentioned Danes did not feel comfortable about imposing a Danish identity on people from different cultures.

Danes who argue like that, however, make no apology for terrorism. What they make is a desperate attempt to understand, laced with a great fear: perhaps we cannot stop terrorism; perhaps it is too late.

But Denmark’s Social Democratic government does not think it is too late. Not at all. At the moment it is introducing new anti-terror legislation so draconian that it has provoked a usually friendly liberal daily newspaper, Politiken, to write on its front page, “FE [Denmark’s military intelligence service] will get more power than the NSA”—the NSA being the National Security Agency of the USA!

Nor is this run-of-the-mill headline hyperbole. The Danish government wants military intelligence to be able to bug and eavesdrop on Danes travelling abroad without the prior permission of a Danish court—as has been the law until now. This is to get at “foreign fighters” who would then risk a charge of treason. Courts would be able to take away passports. Airlines would have to hand in lists of their passengers. Powers to gather personal information would be greatly expanded, funding of the intelligence services dramatically increased, restrictions on police access to social media reduced, prisons kept under surveillance to prevent their becoming terrorist recruitment centres.

These are tough measures, and opposition to them is accompanied by warnings that a “police state” is just round the corner. The political battle is on, not at least because a general election is itself around the corner.

Such arguments are the common coin of political debate in the post-9/11 age. Even so, the most striking moment in the debate so far has been the statement (to a Danish newspaper) by the Social Democratic Home Secretary, Mette Frederiksen, in advocating the anti-terror laws. The failure of integration, she said, was not responsible for terror. Society was not responsible. Other people were not responsible. THE TERRORIST WAS RESPONSIBLE.

No democratic country can undvaere a national debate when something dramatic happens, especially when it is an event that changes everything. Nor can a democratic country undvaere political leaders who cut through the usual arguments and say what they themselves think. On this occasion Denmark was fortunate in enjoying both. The Prime Minister said to the Jews that she could not undvaere them. They were the victims, and she was on their side. The Danish Home Secretary said to the terrorist that he and nobody else was responsible for the murders committed.

No people can undvaere moral clarity in times of confusion and pain. That clarity was provided—but for how long?

Ulla Terkelsen is the roving correspondent, based in Paris, for Denmark’s TV2. She has been a senior foreign correspondent for either TV2 or Danish Radio in numerous European and American cities since 1967. Her recent tours of duty have included Afghanistan.

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