Humanitarian Missions

James Meek

Will Vladimir Putin order direct military intervention in Ukraine? Russia already enables a free flow of Russian volunteers and mercenaries to fight against government forces in eastern Ukraine. It is supplying the rebels with weapons, vehicles and ammunition. It is shelling and rocketing Ukrainian territory daily, and promotes the portrayal of the Kiev government as cruel, illegitimate fascists in Russian-language media. The key leaders of the rebels, like Igor Strelkov, Alexander Borodai, Igor Bezler, Nikolai Kozitsyn and Vladimir Antyufeyev, are Russian citizens or Russian nationalists from ex-Soviet territories under Russian control.

Despite this the rebels have lost ground, and have retreated to their redoubts in the big eastern cities of Donetsk and Lugansk, the town of Gorlovka (Horlivka in Ukrainian) and south-eastern Lugansk region.

In recent days, clues to a possible template for direct Russian military intervention have emerged. Even as Ukrainian forces win territory, Russia and the rebels have tightened their grip on a stretch of the Russia-Ukraine border in south-east Lugansk. Hundreds of Ukrainian border guards and supporting troops were either forced to retreat under fire (the Ukrainian version) or deserted (the Russian version) into Russia. Meanwhile Russia has positioned tens of thousands of troops and aircraft near Ukraine.

In the past Russia has justified – and to some extent designed – its interventions in such a way as to defend them internationally on the grounds of ‘we’re only doing what you did in Iraq/the Falklands/Bosnia/Kosovo/Libya.’ On Monday, the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, sought the support of the UN and other international organisations for a ‘humanitarian mission in south-eastern Ukraine'. What he meant by a ‘humanitarian mission’ he did not specify.

But the likely rejection of Russian participation in a ‘humanitarian mission’, on the grounds that Russia needs to halt its covert military mission in the area first, wouldn’t necessarily stop Russia going ahead with a ‘humanitarian’ intervention on its own. And although such an intervention would lead to more bloodshed and horror, Russia’s interference in Ukraine – without which the current war would not have begun – has already caused plenty of damage. More than a thousand people, combatants and civilians, have been killed, tens of thousands have fled, homes have been destroyed, bridges have been blown up, businesses have collapsed, education has been halted, and infrastructure has been ruined. Lugansk is said to be without electricity, water or mobile phone coverage.

Dressing invasion in a ‘western’ costume has a military as well as a moral and legal aspect. The first step might be the imposition of a ‘humanitarian’ no-fly zone over eastern Ukraine, with the Russian air force and surface-to-air missiles preventing Ukrainian aircraft operating over rebel positions. But Russia has provided the rebels so lavishly with missiles – and, Ukraine claims, shot down at least one Ukrainian plane directly – that to some extent there is a no-fly zone already.

A fully fledged ‘humanitarian’ invasion of eastern Ukraine would, if it followed the US pattern, be preceded by a lengthy aerial campaign to destroy the Ukrainian air force and all the country’s air defences, giving Russia complete air superiority. But apart from the fact that the Ukrainians would fight back, this would involve the Russian air force bombing air bases in western Ukraine, provocatively close to the border with the EU and Nato.

It may be that Russia will not up the level of its intervention beyond the support it is giving the rebels already, but is preparing the ground for the separatists to retreat to an area immediately adjacent to Russia – Lugansk city perhaps, or just east of it – which they can hold indefinitely under the cover of Russian supplies, artillery fire and the occasional cross-border raid. Still, it is not easy to see how Putin can extricate himself from the disaster he has made in this way with political safety, or with the continued respect of his ex-KGB peers and rivals, whose esteem, I suspect, matter more to him than any degree of western sanctions.

Donetsk, the rebel-held capital of the east, is the key. If Donetsk falls to Ukrainian government forces, Putin will be seen to have been defeated, regardless of his audacious theft of Crimea and the future fate of Lugansk. The rebel commander in Donetsk, Strelkov, has become a hero to Russians. Perhaps the Russian cavalry will ride to his rescue. Perhaps he will die in battle. Perhaps this avatar of a White Russian general will yield to local figures, civilians, politicians, people who, unlike him, are natives of eastern Ukraine, who would be capable of making a deal with Kiev. But he is in an odd position: both Putin’s standard bearer, and, for that reason, a threat to Putin. He may need to watch his back.


  • 7 August 2014 at 2:43pm
    trader2 says:
    "Russia already enables a free flow of Russian volunteers and mercenaries to fight against government forces in eastern Ukraine. It is supplying the rebels with weapons, vehicles and ammunition. It is shelling and rocketing Ukrainian territory daily" Meeks provides no supporting evidence for these claims.
    This piece is pure war mongering. If he wants to write about a country that invades others with weak pretext he only has to look at the US and it's UK lapdog. In psychological terms Meeks is projecting UK crimes onto another. I guess it makes him feel better

  • 8 August 2014 at 1:41pm
    Goodenough says:
    "Lugansk is said to be without electricity, water or mobile phone coverage."

    Maybe Putin could organize "humanitarian aid drops".

  • 8 August 2014 at 5:38pm
    keith smith says:
    So the problem is not an indigenous revolt in Eastern Ukraine against the new Kiev regime, and its very very dubious supporters, but rather those outside troublemakers from Russia. Haven't we heard this sort of thing before? I remember my Dad telling me in Australia in the early 1960s that "if we don't stop the Chinese in Vietnam we'll have to stop them in Darwin". He and James Meek would have got on just fine.

  • 8 August 2014 at 8:58pm
    Mr Pancks says:
    Hmm, nothing in Meeks' piece about the real geopolitical chess game, played for control of dwindling resources, principally oil. Nothing about the US's broken promise to keep NATO back from Russia's western border. Nor about V. Nuland's boast of having spent $5 billion on "democracy promotion" in Ukraine, nor her documented selection of "Yats" as Washington's man in Kiev. And of course nothing about the five (or was it six?) cabinet posts (including Secretary of the Army Council) awarded by Yats & co. to leaders of Svoboda and Right Sector, who provided the muscle for the coup and are in fact "cruel, illegitimate fascists." ---No, just the usual corporate-media drumbeat: Kiev good, Putin bad. What's next for LRB, a cover shot of Putin as Satan, a la recent issues of Time, Newsweek, The Economist et al.?

    Let me suggest to Mr. Meeks that in this particular round of sordid nuclear-armed chess the US is the aggressor, and should bear most of the blame.

  • 9 August 2014 at 4:33am
    Ralph W Reed says:
    How brave of James Meek to mirror the arguments of the US State Department. Nearly a million refugees fleeing eastward must be victims of Putin's propaganda rather than Kiev's bombs.

    I'm curious why he didn't mention MH17, when it was proven shot down by rebels with sophisticated "Russian" anti-aircraft weaponry less than an hour after it occurred.

    On the bright side, despite the apparent lack of an independent media in the West(horrible to return to that construct), the nearly uniform narrative of the public intelligentsia does seem to indicate the Vietnam generation have finally come in from the cold. Or maybe it's just that "shit floats."

    Barack Obama in a recent interview in the Economist says that the US remains important internationally because it's willing to "spend blood and treasure" when other state aren't. Nice to see he's finally come around too, replacing international law with "international norms."

    What a tragedy to have idiotic geopolitical games replace international cooperation.

  • 9 August 2014 at 5:47pm
    Spyros Marchetos says:
    i'd very much like to hear mr. Meek's views on this issue one year from now, in August 2015.

  • 10 August 2014 at 5:06pm
    julianxii says:
    Frankly, I think the way the world is ignoring the tragedy in Ukraine is disheartening. My in-laws, two old people who couldn't leave because they can barely walk, are trapped in Lugansk. We can't contact them anymore because Ukraine--Kiev--has decided to cut Lugansk off the electric grid. There is no water and no food. Not that they have money to buy food, anyway, since Kiev has decided to remove all funds from pensioner accounts. Before the water was cut off, they were told they had to boil it---too many dead bodies on the ground and in the resevoire, polluting it. My in-laws have committed no crimes, beyond being residents of Lugansk who grew too old to move freely, and yet they are being terrified by bombing, starving from a lack of food--eating only what they can scavange, and out of medicine.
    Something needs to be done for the people who aren't rebels, but only innocent civilians trapped in this nightmare. Things are worse in Lugansk than in Gaza, yet no one seems to care.

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