The voluntary captive state: Lessons from frozen conflict zones that don’t teach anything

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2014/10/29 • Analysis & Opinion, Op-ed

Article by: Dmytro Chekalkin

Yesterday I was invited to a panel discussion organized by VoxUkraine called “Frozen Conflicts: Lessons from Post-Soviet Countries,” with the participation of Edward Walker, Executive Director of the Program in Eurasian and East European Studies at UC Berkeley, and Tom Coupe, Associate Professor at the Kyiv School of Economics.

It was at that panel discussion that I discovered who I want to be. I want to be a professor of political science. You get to travel around all sorts of People’s Republics of Asses-stan, you get to observe people, socialize with them, and tell them generally how things are. You do not impart any ideas, you do not press or urge your interlocutor on anything, you simply say, look here, in South Ossetia, for example, this is how things are, and in Transdniester this is how things are – and here you are wondering what to do and how to live, and to me it looks like you, here in Asses-stan, could learn a thing or two from them.

Call it jealousy, say that I am jealous because I am not a learned professor or director, but at this event I felt like I was the poet-singer Eminem at a get-together with his parents. So many times I felt like grabbing a chair and hurling it at all those participants sitting around the table just to bring them back to earth. I restrained myself because nowadays hitting is no longer considered to be a good teaching tool.

The problem with all those dear assembled experts was that their objective was too simple: to just collect and systematize the events, changes and developments, plus any knowhow that has been gleaned from various other conflicts. And they were masters at accumulating and systematizing.

But as a man who is lacking in both education and training, I am forced to always remember that experience comes from the totality of knowledge one gains about how to correctly proceed in situations that will never be repeated.

Here is the useful information I came away with:

  • In the conflict zone, economics will obviously be asshole economics. No matter what kind of economic system will be developed, it will be worse than in the rest of the country.
  • The residents of the conflict zone won’t even notice that, economically, things in the zone are worse. More than that, those who will remain in the conflict zone will think that their life is better than it is in the rest of the country.
  • And then there is this: There will be a higher, even much higher percentage of people in the rebel-held territory than in the rest of the country who will claim that, with the income they receive, they can buy anything they want.

That very scary assessment was made by Tom Coupe, who presented it (smile), as it seemed to me, for no good reason. Because here is how it should be decoded:

There will be no good life in the DNR [Donetsk People’s Republic]. Those who do not like it, those who do not want to stuff their gut with pigweed and pray to Motorola [one of the rebel commanders], the god of war, will either die there or will escape. Only those who are satisfied with the situation will stay. The level of satisfaction will generally improve for them.

The DNR will sustain itself by demanding ransom money for the prisoners they are holding. Lots of armed men will be involved in that state economic enterprise. Armed people will make up a disproportionately large percentage of the population in the DNR. And those people will be able to afford everything, from roasts to bullets. And their “everything” will be within the spectrum from roasts to bullets. “Everything” for a DNR person and “everything” for a sound-minded person are completely different “everythings.”

By the way, those peace-loving citizens who remain in the DNR will sincerely believe that their life is better than it is in the rest of Hey-Ukraine. And here’s why.

MTS [mobile phone operator] has already stopped servicing their towers within the territory of the DNR. What does that mean for the future? To the question, “What will happen next?”, Professor Walker gave a rather clever answer: “It’s very hard to predict the future.” I agree that predicting the future isn’t easy, but for us, in contrast to Professor Walker, predicting the future is important, so we’ll give it a crack.

Why has MTS stopped servicing their towers? Because the mortality rate among their personnel is too high. There you are carrying payment for a barrier to be put up around the tower. You are led aside and are shot dead, because how dare you cram your spy stuff into our mobiles, bitch. And that wasn’t just a story told by a terrorist, it really happened.

Every single tower will eventually be burned and forgotten. And soon, too, because they had been built with large deposits from corrupt entities, and they do burn well, and without repairs they would not last anyway. On top of everything, the locals will start taking the towers apart for metal recycling. Whoever among the DNR elite might still be in charge and alive at the same time will, of course, try to put armed guards around the tower. But the guards can only prevent it from being sawed to pieces. The stealing of money will not be stopped.

If the conflict does become frozen, the winter months will see the DNR and the LNR [Luhansk People’s Republic] turn into black stains in the domain of communication. There will be no internet, no mobile phones, and any kind of transfer of information will be maximally controlled.

In similar situations, people quickly turn to the world of rumors to satisfy their hunger for information. In the perception of a typical DNR resident at the start of spring, 2015, one half of Ukraine will be under the rule of heroic DNR rebels and the other half will have adopted Satanism as its official religion, sodomy will be taught in schools; in the few remaining hospitals within the DNR patients will be forced to pay for their treatment by donating their internal organs to the benefit of Hey-Europe.

And if you think that the residents of the DNR couldn’t possibly come up with stuff like this, you are exactly right. By themselves, they couldn’t. But there’s help out there. Lots of help.

And when we talked about towers, we were talking about the towers in the DNR. At least they have enough men to guard the towers. But if we want to talk about the LNR, things there are pretty plain. The Cossacks in control of the LNR are busy cutting the entire Luhansk Oblast into pieces and shipping all the metal to Rostov for salvage. And by spring, when the mutant chief Magneto [rebel leader] arrives in Luhansk, he will be completely ineffective and useless, because besides buttons there will be nothing metallic left. The rails, the wires, metalworking supplies, transformer stations, all of it will have been sold. Because the Cossacks are occupiers and occupiers treat occupied territory like occupiers and murderers do. They unscrew things and ship them out.

Tom Coupe has postulated that among the better tools that can be utilized to gradually snuff out a conflict is economic cooperation with the occupied territories. That’s an original proposition, Tom. But. Cooperation is a funny guy who requires two hands (I am quoting the assembler of territories, Mechnikov): Cooperation is “formed by two mutually agreeing sides.”

In our case, one of the sides, to cite a relevant quote from Givi, the authorized representative of the DNR, has an attitude that isn’t too cooperative: “You bitches, dicks, fucking bastards.” That kind of attitude generally tends to complicate talks and cooperation.

Standard economic cooperation with the occupied territories is impossible. The DNR (a) has nothing to offer Ukraine aside from the hostages, and (b) is not interested in cooperation. The DNR is interested in marching on Kyiv, though in reality it can’t even take over the Donetsk airport.

In any case, the single most important lesson that we can extract from the history of “frozen conflicts” in the post-Soviet space is the conclusion that never in the history of the Russian Federation, which from the beginning had consistently provoked these conflicts, never has the RF thought that it could get hurt by a country that, shall we say, is comparatively equal in size. Which means that taking Ukraine by draining it will not work. We are too angry and we have more than enough firepower for the RF to be able to scare us into a state of paralysis. Poroshenko might not be sufficiently armed; he can be scared and talked into negotiating. But us, there are too many of us, so we will not stop and will not pretend that everything is as it should be, as Georgia and Moldova were forced to do.

And the second part of the lesson: The Russian Federation has never gotten slapped in the face by a peace-loving country for its provocations. Even Georgia left Russia alone. And now, here in Ukraine, the RF is being challenged like never before. The FSB [Russian state security service] is keeping secrets, the sanctions are choking its people and newer and newer sanctions are being slapped on. Those in the FSB, the meddlers whose job it is muddle, have understood where things are headed. That is why, taking advantage of the situation, they are stepping up their savage intrusion – with the ultimate goal of personal aggrandizement.

In other words, here is what needs to be done. Under no circumstances should we be appeased. Under no circumstances should we be reconciled with what’s coming. Under no circumstances should we agree to the status quo. Ukrainians live in the Donbas, they are our brothers who were caught hostage in the appalling interference and infringement on information – with the disinformation the RF delivers straight into our heads. Our duty is to save them. They are in no condition to save themselves. They are in a state of shock. We have been shown that people who live in the conflict zones are incapable of comprehending that they are living in shit. So it is our duty to save them if we consider the Donbas to be Ukrainian. We should never abandon our brothers. It is our brothers who live in the Donbas; it’s just that they’re in a state of shock.

Secondly: The glaring evidence of war and conflict on our territory guarantees that our economy will be worth shit. Developing an economy in shitty conditions is terribly difficult. Donbas, as long as it is within the DNR or the LNR, will be constantly eating up our resources. All our incomes will go towards containing the ulcer. And that means that we cannot afford to have a DNR or an LNR. Excuse me, it’s nothing personal, it’s just economics, stupid.

And lastly: Europe and the United States will drag the RF through sanctions only as long as we keep pounding the DNR. If we make peace and become weak, they will see that we don’t need their help anymore and they will work out some kind of peace deal themselves. Europe is already trying to do that. And once the United States and Europe stop hitting Russia with sanctions, the RF will have the power to continue to sponsor the DNR, and that includes expanding provocations further west. We cannot allow that to happen.

Winter will be a contest of survival: Who will fall first, Ukraine or Russia? The RF is collapsing quite rapidly, much faster than Ukraine, because the RF is being pounded by the whole world, while Ukraine is being pounded by the RF and the DNR. But we are smaller and weaker than the RF. Still it is positively our duty not only to get through the winter but to flush out the DNR come spring.

Clench your teeth, ladies and gentlemen. Because besides living next to the most terrible impending geopolitical catastrophe of the 21st century, we are also bringing it closer with every breath we take. That is the cost.

I will not be forgotten,
This is my time to shine.
I’ve got the scars to prove it,
Only the strong survive.
I’m not afraid of dying,
Everyone has their time.
I’ve never favored weakness,
Welcome to the pride.

– Aleksandr Noinets

Translated by: Olha Rudakevych
Edited by: Andrew Kinder

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  • Don Casavant

    Great post! This guy is tugging on the strings of my heart!