With Mattis’ Visit to Ukraine on Its Independence Day, the US Sends a Message to Moscow
KYIV, Ukraine — A nation doesn’t always reveal its pride or its undying hope for a better future through military parades and presidential speeches.
Sometimes, it’s a 40-year-old combat veteran standing rigid in his military fatigues, a medal pinned to his chest, bowing his head in remembrance of fallen comrades while tears run down his cheeks and his hands lay gently on the shoulders of his 14-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter.
“I fought to give my children a better life,” Alex Sinelnichenko, that 40-year-old Ukrainian combat veteran, said during a military parade in Kyiv on Thursday, part of Ukraine’s Independence Day celebrations.
“In spite of everything, I still have hope for the future,” Sinelnichenko said.
On Thursday morning, thousands of people lined Khreshchatyk, Kyiv’s main boulevard, for a military parade to commemorate the country’s 26th year of independence from the Soviet Union. U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis was on hand to observe the parade alongside Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, underscoring America’s wartime solidarity with Ukraine.
“Have no doubt, the United States stands with Ukraine,” Mattis said at a news conference with Poroshenko after Thursday’s parade. “We support you in the face of threats to sovereignty and territorial integrity, to international law, and to the international order writ large.”
After two failed cease-fires, this is Ukraine’s fourth consecutive Independence Day at war. Twenty-six years after the breakup of the Soviet Union, Ukraine is still paying in blood and treasure for its independence from Russian vassalage.
As of Thursday, the war in eastern Ukraine has killed 10,092 Ukrainians, wounded 23,973 more, and displaced about 1.7 million people.
“The Kremlin is responsible for over 10,000 lives that perished,” Poroshenko said of the ongoing war during his Independence Day speech. “We will never forget, never forgive.”
Repulse the Aggressor
While the crowds celebrated the holiday in Kyiv on Thursday, Ukrainian troops remained hunkered down in trenches and ad hoc forts along a 250-mile-long front line in the country’s embattled, southeastern Donbas region. There, Ukraine’s military continues to fight a grinding, static war against a combined force of pro-Russian separatists and Russian regulars that began in April 2014 — 40 months ago.
The operative cease-fire, known as Minsk II, has failed. About one-third of the war’s fatalities happened after the cease-fire went into effect in February 2015. Last week, one Ukrainian soldier died in combat and 27 were wounded. Ukrainian intelligence officials estimated combined Russian-separatist forces suffered 30 combat deaths and 51 of its troops were wounded during the same period.
Inside the two breakaway territories in the Donbas, there are currently about 3,000 Russian soldiers embedded within a larger force of about 34,000 pro-Russian separatists and foreign mercenaries, according to Ukrainian and NATO reports.
Additionally, Russia has forward deployed about 100,000 troops within its own territory near the border with Ukraine. Ukraine, for its part, has about 60,000 troops deployed to the war zone.
Mattis’ presence in Kyiv on Thursday — the first time a U.S. defense secretary has visited Ukraine in a decade — telegraphed to Moscow that the U.S. will no longer rely wholly on its European allies to negotiate a deal to end the conflict, and that the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump is willing to flex more U.S. soft and hard power muscle to get Russia to back down from its proxy war on Ukraine.
“We in the United States understand the strategic challenges associated with Russian aggression,” Mattis said. “Alongside our allies, we remain committed to upholding the widely accepted international norms that have increased global stability for decades.”
War Isn’t Over, Even If You Want It
Alongside the Ukrainian troops marching down Khreshchatyk on Thursday were soldiers representing military units from 10 other countries — including the United States.
The sight of a U.S. soldier with an American flag in hand marching down the center of Khreshchatyk drew a wave of applause and cheers from the Ukrainian crowds that lined the way. Active-duty Ukrainian soldiers and veterans in military uniforms crowded the barricades with their smartphones held high, taking photos and videos of the passing stars and stripes.
The scene highlighted the esteem of U.S. support in the eyes of many Ukrainians.
A proposal for the U.S. to sell Ukraine lethal, defensive weapons such as the Javelin is now on Trump’s desk for final approval. Congress has already approved the deal, and the departments of State and Defense recently crafted a plan to carry it out.
Ukrainian troops say U.S. weapons shipments to Ukraine would be a game-changing morale booster. Forty months of war, 30 of which have been spent holed up in World War I-style trenches and in the basements of artillery-blasted, abandoned homes — essentially as target practice for Russia’s mortars, shells, and rockets — is sure to dim the morale of any soldier. No matter what he or she is fighting for.
Consequently, U.S. support in any form — whether through diplomatic gestures or weapons shipments — sends a signal to Ukraine’s soldiers that they have the backing of the world’s most powerful country.
Mattis’ high-profile visit to Kyiv is a key win in the eyes of many Ukrainians. It symbolizes, above all, that the U.S. is incrementally upping the ante of its support for Ukraine and elbowing its way into negotiations with Russia to end the war.
Representatives from Ukraine, Russia, France, and Germany — collectively known as the Normandy Format — have brokered cease-fire negotiations since they began in the late summer of 2014.
Like the United States, the EU has levied punitive economic sanctions on Moscow for its military aggression in Ukraine. Yet, those sanctions have not yet given France and Germany enough leverage at the cease-fire negotiating table to pressure Russia into stemming its flow of military hardware and military personnel into Ukraine.
Nevertheless, Poroshenko announced on Aug. 23 that the Normandy Format had hashed out the terms of a renewed cease-fire deal that would go into effect on Sept. 1, coinciding with the start of the Ukrainian school year.
Such back-to-school recommitments to the failed Minsk II cease-fire have become a perennial tradition at the end of each summer since 2014. Each time, the war ebbs for a bit before resuming its lethal course in a predictable, if incremental, tit-for-tat escalation.
Yet, this time around, the U.S. is casting a longer shadow over the cease-fire negotiations.
On Aug. 21, Kurt Volker, U.S. special representative for Ukraine negotiations, traveled to Minsk, Belarus, where he met with Russian presidential aide Vladislav Surkov to discuss a path forward to ending the war in Ukraine.
The U.S. isn’t a part of the Normandy Format, but Volker’s single-minded diplomatic assignment, along with the rekindled prospect for U.S. weapons shipments to Ukraine, collectively underscore a more targeted and engaged U.S. diplomatic effort to end the war.
Still, due to Russia’s track record of maintaining frozen conflicts as a means to strong-arm countries it wishes to control, some experts remain doubtful whether Volker’s diplomatic efforts will ultimately bear fruit.
“I am not optimistic that a firm and sustainable cease-fire solution can be reached,” Agnia Grigas, author of “Beyond Crimea: The New Russian Empire” and a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, told The Daily Signal.
“Violence continues to flare regularly in other Russian sponsored separatist territories such as Georgia’s South Ossetia and Abkhazia,” Grigas said. “Russia will not let go of the Donbas easily and Crimea looks like a lost cause, at least under the current leadership in the Kremlin.”
Vladimir Socor, senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation, said Volker has several key challenges. One of which is Russia’s hollow desire for peace.
“Official definitions such as ‘ending the war’ or ‘achieving a political settlement’ — or making strides toward either or both objectives — are unattainable on any terms in Ukraine’s favor, as long as [Russian President Vladimir] Putin is in power with Surkov handling the negotiations,” Socor told The Daily Signal. “Kurt Volker’s operational objective should be to extricate Ukraine from the trap of the Minsk documents, circumventing these, while paying an inevitable degree of lip service to them.”
Never Forget, Never Forgive
Before the gathered crowds in Kyiv on Thursday, 4,500 Ukrainian soldiers in their gleaming uniforms stood at attention as their commander in chief praised Ukraine’s military for defending the country against Russia and its separatist proxies.
“We have finally recovered from deep shock inflicted by the Russian hybrid aggression on the 26th year of our independence,” Poroshenko said during his speech. “Ukraine is ready to repulse the aggressor severely in case of its attempts to launch an offensive.”
Then, Poroshenko asked the gathered crowds to bow their heads and observe a moment of silence in remembrance of fallen soldiers. At that, Sinelnichenko’s 14-year-old son wrapped an arm around his father’s back.
“It’s important for my children to have a patriotic upbringing, but I don’t want them to be soldiers,” Sinelnichenko said, his eyes welling. “That’s why I went to war.”
The war in Ukraine is not a civil war. It never was. It always has been, and remains, a Ukrainian defense against a Russian invasion.
“Putin’s end game is to destabilize Ukraine and hold separatist territories as a lever over Kyiv’s foreign policy such as efforts to join the EU or NATO,” Grigas, the Atlantic Council senior fellow, said.
The Kremlin has continually denied that its forces are involved in the war. Yet Mattis, true to form, did not parse words when addressing Russia’s role in the conflict.
“Despite Russia’s denials, we know they are seeking to redraw international borders by force, undermining the sovereign and free nations of Europe,” Mattis told reporters in Kyiv on Thursday.
Ukrainian soldiers and political leaders have long advertised the civil war versus Russian invasion distinction—and have appealed to the West for help, accordingly. Those entreaties have, for years, included a request for the U.S. to sell Ukraine lethal, defensive weapons like the Javelin anti-tank missile.
Despite congressional approval and bipartisan support, former President Barack Obama refused to send weapons to Ukraine. The Obama administration’s line of thinking, according to news reports, was that sending Ukraine weapons could have escalated the war and spurred more Russian military aggression in Ukraine and across Eastern Europe.
As Trump now mulls the weapons proposal, concerns linger about the potential Russian response.
“Shipping U.S. weapons to Ukraine will deter Russia to some extent in Ukraine but also move U.S.-Russia tensions to a new level,” Grigas said.
For his part, Mattis had a blunt message for Moscow when a reporter asked whether U.S. weapons shipments to Ukraine would provoke a Russian escalation.
“Defensive weapons are not provocative unless you’re an aggressor,” Mattis said.
Altogether, Thursday was a symbolic day for Ukraine to both assert its aspirations for a future within the EU and NATO, and declare its freedom from Russia’s so-called “sphere of influence.”
Yet, for all the spectacle of the speeches and the marching troops, it was the vignettes on the sidelines of the parade, within the crowds, that more acutely highlighted how much the war has reshaped Ukraine.
Fathers — some in military uniform — had children on their shoulders. Many in the crowd wore vyshyvankas, Ukraine’s traditional embroidered blouse. Ukraine’s blue and yellow flag was an ubiquitous sight. So were European Union flags.
Before the war, there was a taboo surrounding military service in Ukraine. It was seen by many as a last-ditch career avenue for drunkards, or for those without an education or any better prospects.
The war has changed all that.
On Thursday, active-duty troops and veterans of the war proudly wore their military uniforms, many with rows of medals pinned to their chests.
On Bessarabska Square, an old man approached a young soldier in uniform, who looked like a boy, really.
The old man, who wore a paddy cap and had a thick salt and pepper mustache, shook the young man’s hand and thanked him for defending the country. Such an overt display of gratitude for a soldier’s service would have been almost unthinkable just a few years ago.
“I’m proud to see so many people here today,” Sinelnichenko said while his two children stood beside him, craning their necks to get a better view of the soldiers marching past.
“It might be a cynical thing to say, but I can say thank you to Putin, because he united our country,” Sinelnichenko added, a smile spreading over his tear-lined cheeks. “Only in the face of great danger could we be so united. The war brought us closer together.”
Nolan Peterson, a former special operations pilot and a combat veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, is The Daily Signal’s foreign correspondent based in Ukraine. Send an email to Nolan. @nolanwpeterson
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