I was initially reluctant to accept the Ukrainian government’s reference to the pro-Putin separatists in Eastern Ukraine as “terrorists” – since terrorists deliberately target civilians in order to achieve political and ideological objectives. However, during the past week, it has become clear that at least a significant fraction of the separatists have engaged in exactly that: hostage-takings and killings of civilians in an effort to “secure bargaining chips” or “send a message” to their political enemies.
While very little news that comes out of Eastern Ukraine now can be trusted as being unaffected by propaganda for one interest or another, I do completely trust this account by Simon Ostrovsky, a VICE journalist who was captured by armed gunmen, beaten, held in captivity for four days, and subsequently released. His account relates the identities of some of the other prisoners; a few may themselves be militants working for the other ugly nationalist group in the mix – Right Sector – but many are completely innocent: journalists, political activists, and civilians. It is completely unacceptable to abduct and hold such people hostage, for political leverage or otherwise, no matter what one’s goals or objectives are.
The separatists have committed other crimes as well. The torture and murder of Vladimir Rybak, a councilman who supported the Ukrainian government, is the most heinous among them. Rybak was a peaceful man who spoke his mind; he was vocal and passionate, but never posed a physical threat to anyone. The fact that he would be whisked away in the middle of the night, mutilated, killed, and thrown into a river smacks of Stalin-era tactics to suppress political dissidents and critics.
A further travesty is the abduction of OSCE monitors and unarmed foreign military observers, who were clearly not in Eastern Ukraine to stoke up hostilities, but rather could have negotiated a peaceful resolution to the conflict. The fact that the separatists are inclined to take the observers hostage instead of speaking with them, expressing their grievances, and attempting a diplomatic solution, shows their true colors.
While I had hoped that the multilateral Geneva Statement would be the beginning of a de-escalation in Eastern Ukraine, this has, unfortunately, not come to pass. Vladimir Putin’s regime did not play its part. Putin could have easily defused tensions by publicly speaking about the need for separatists to vacate occupied government buildings in the Donetsk region and to engage OSCE monitors and other third-party negotiators peacefully and sincerely. The fact that he failed to do this, and continues to support the separatists rhetorically, in spite of their record of hostage-takings, murders, and intimidation, gives me substantial doubts regarding his good faith.
Then again, there are very few good people involved in this entire mess – apart from the innocent civilians who are trying to live and work in peace, and to speak their minds in civilized ways, instead of resorting to violence, brutality, and brinksmanship. The pro-Putin separatists and the Putin regime are not the only guilty parties here. This past weekend, Sergei Rodenko – a beloved figure in his community – and two other civilians who performed part-time duty at a checkpoint northwest of Slovyansk, were probably murdered by Right Sector thugs. This situation increasingly reminds me of the nightmare that has unfolded in Syria over the past two years, where the regime of the tyrant and murderer Bashar Assad is fighting a war of attrition against barbarous and often equally brutal Islamic fundamentalist fanatics. Once ancient hatreds – be they religious or nationalistic – are unleashed, all goodness is at risk of being washed away by rivers of blood. It is good that, in 2013, a major public outcry in the United States prevented the US government and military from becoming involved in a conflict where it is absolutely not clear who the greater evil is. (Nor is it ever justifiable to aid evil, period – all the misguided rhetoric regarding the “greater good” notwithstanding.) A similar public outcry is needed against intervention in Ukraine; American foreign policy is terrible at dealing with “gray areas” – especially where every side has clear evil elements. One can only hope that sanity and reason will prevail in Eastern Ukraine, and peace will somehow be achieved, before the body count approaches anywhere near the catastrophic levels it has reached in Syria. As for us in the West, we can only condemn – and hope.
What should the United States government do? This is vital: nothing – except condemnation of all atrocities and attempts to secure the release of all captured civilians. Diplomacy has unfortunately not succeeded in resolving the present mess, and further intervention of any sort will only reinforce the perception (held by the Putin regime and many of its sympathizers in Eastern Ukraine) that the Ukrainian government is simply a tool of Western and especially American geopolitical interests. While military occupation of Ukraine has thankfully been ruled out by the United States and NATO, economic sanctions would, too, be a grave folly. The free-market argument against sanctions includes the recognition that sanctions almost never harm the regime in power; they always harm ordinary civilians and rally them around the hostile regime. In the words of Frédéric Bastiat, “When goods don’t cross borders, armies will.” Economic sanctions always set up the scene for war, because they break the ties of commerce that enable peaceful cooperation, mutual understanding, and cosmopolitanism. As the great Ludwig von Mises put it, “Wars, foreign and domestic (revolutions, civil wars), are more likely to be avoided the closer the division of labor binds men.” Mises also said that military conflicts “are an outgrowth of the various governments’ interference with business, of trade and migration barriers and discrimination against foreign labor, foreign products, and foreign capital.” To the extent that advocates of sanctions depart from this understanding, they are sacrificing free-market principles to the desire to undermine and punish Putin and Russia. Putin may deserve punishment, but his innocent subjects certainly do not.
Do nothing and allow a local solution – fueled by what Friedrich Hayek called “knowledge of the circumstances of time and place” – to emerge. The United States and European Union cannot improve on any resolution that Ukrainians and Russians might be able to arrive at, even if that resolution would be grossly sub-optimal from any reasonable standpoint. For us Westerners to inject ourselves into this horrific mess would only risk dragging us down into the thick quagmire of hatreds, hostilities, and recriminations. This is not a part of the world that can be easily fixed, and it has always suffered from deep cultural maladies. The penetration of the 18th-century Enlightenment there is only superficial and limited to a small segment of society. Those who truly seek a better life are better off just leaving than attempting to resolve the deep problems that have persisted since at least the 13th-century Mongol conquests! They are better off just leaving – as I fortunately did during my childhood – and we are better off just staying out. By attempting to “solve” the problems of post-Soviet republics, the Western powers only risk importing those problems – nationalism, xenophobia, militarism, jingoism, propagandism, and economic isolationism, just to name a few – into their own countries.