One of the most deplorable features of the Ukraine crisis has been the unwillingness of both Russia and the United States to restrain their respective allies. Until yesterday, when reports emerged that Washington is now counseling a go-slow approach to the prospective sieges of Donetsk and Lugansk, Washington has betrayed little anxiety that the Ukrainians might go too far. About the only daylight observable between the two states has been that the U.S. State Department refers to the insurgents as separatists, whereas the Ukrainians call them terrorists. But American officials have not condemned the use of that terminology by the Ukrainians, and they continue to defend Ukraine’s military actions as “moderate and measured.”
The language of the Ukrainian authorities is of a war to the death. "We will not stop,” said the newly appointed Defense Minister, Valeriy Heletey. He continued:
We will bring in maximum numbers of troops and weapons, and strengthen them with National Guard soldiers, police troops and the Security Service - all will be thrown in to defend the Donbas . . . to defend those cities from terrorists.
Those not willing to give up arms [will] understand that waging a war against the Ukrainian army and the Ukrainian people is not just dangerous but it will mean doom for these people . . . We will continue the active phase until the moment there is not a single terrorist left on the territory of Donetsk and Lugansk.
Heletey, the fourth defense minister since February, was appointed on July 3; in his maiden speech, he promised to liberate Crimea . “There will be a victory parade,” he declared, “in Ukraine's Sevastopol.” The minister acknowledged that the people in the southeast “are disoriented and afraid of Ukraine, of Kyiv. They are afraid they will be punished and tortured.” But he also warned the residents, in effect, that you’re either with us or against us. “The residents have to . . . first and foremost not support, passively or actively, those terrorists. If it works this way, the process will be very quick," he said.
Another piece of ominous news , from the New York Times , is that the new Ukrainian forces have learned to kill their fellow countrymen without being conscience-stricken about it. This, the Times intimates, is great progress. "They have overcome that psychological barrier in which the military were afraid to shoot living people," says one local expert. Once the military had gotten over their silly phobia, “and it became clear who were our people, who were foes, the operations became more effective."
There is no shortage of similar talk on the Russian side. Begging for Russian assistance, and charging betrayal against the Kremlin, the leader of the insurgents, Igor Girkin, says the armed forces advancing toward him are “true fascists in the sense of the word that our predecessors had used—hellhounds, murderers, bandits, marauders . . . Real scum."
It is deplorable that things have been brought to such a pass, and it would be bad all around—that is, for everybody’s true interests—for the violence to proceed to further extremes. In a better world, the forces on both sides would be reined in by their external patrons.
When secession was proposed for South Sudan and Kosovo, the argument used by the West was that that the violence employed by the Sudanese and Serb regimes made them unfit to govern the people in their disaffected regions. Given those precedents, the Ukrainians should think long and hard about the methods they employ to “annihilate” the “terrorists” in their southeast. If the result of their military operations is a badly alienated population in that region, they risk forfeiting their right to rule these people; that seems, at least, to be the general idea suggested by the precedents of South Sudan and Kosovo. Western countries, of course, have a well developed capacity to look the other way when their own allies commit misdeeds, so it is not probable that the equities of the case will decide it. But they should. In determining such questions, as Woodrow Wilson said, “the interests of the populations concerned must have equal weight with the equitable claims of the government whose title is to be determined.”
A possible deal, likely to be spurned by Ukraine but worth exploring by the United States and Germany, is that the Ukrainian separatists evacuate their positions in eastern Ukraine and are given safe refuge in Russia. In return, UN peacekeepers occupy the territory and work with Ukrainian civil authorities and international observers to hold a referendum that will tell us what the local population wants. How to frame the referendum might raise delicate questions, but it would hardly seem improper if the people in the Donbass region were given the right to make their opinion known in a plebiscite. Opinion in the Donbass is probably alienated from both the armed insurgents and the Kiev authorities, but no one can be sure unless it is determined by a free vote (which the previous referendum was not). The basic idea would be to get the armed men to hold their fire for a bit, so that the world could hear what the workers and pensioners think. An international conference convened to ensure Ukraine’s pacification would not necessarily be bound by such a referendum, but it would certainly help the diplomats and the outside world understand the equities of the case.