Just weeks after announcing a plan to arm the Ukrainian government with lethal weapons, the Pentagon announced on Friday that Secretary of Defense James Mattis – who has endorsed the plan – will be traveling to Ukraine this coming week in order to reassure the government in Kiev that the U.S. is “firmly committed to the goal of restoring Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
Though the Trump administration is still well less than a year old, it has become clear that Mattis gets what he wants, especially given his assumption of far-reaching war powers once reserved for the President. This, of course, makes the likelihood of the U.S. arming Ukraine increasingly likely.
While the official reasons for the U.S.’ justification in arming Ukraine are wrapped in the usual cloak of “humanitarianism” and fending off “Russian aggression,” it is hardly a coincidence that the plan to send lethal weapons to the government in Kiev coincides with the U.S.’ reluctant winding-down of involvement in the six-year-long conflict in Syria — a conflict often treated as a U.S.-Russia proxy war. This begs the question: Is the U.S. government, led by Mattis, seeking to ignite a new proxy war against Russia, this time on their doorstep?
Wading into ethnic-cleansing waters
Mattis’ visit comes amid an uptick in violence in Ukraine’s internal conflict, which dates back to the U.S.-backed coup of 2014 that saw the right-wing billionaire Petro Poroshenko installed as President along with the ascendancy of Ukraine’s Neo-Nazi and ultra-nationalist parties — Right Sector and Svoboda, respectively – to political prominence.
Since the coup, the new ruling powers of Ukraine have engaged in a campaign to target Ukraine’s eastern regions, where Russian culture and language are strong, as they do not conform to the ultra-nationalism espoused by the post-coup government in Kiev.
The region at the heart of the current conflict, the Donbass, falls completely within Poroshenko’s counter-terrorism zone, despite the fact that it is home to more than 5 million people who are now branded terrorists by the government in Kiev. Poroshenko’s government has been supported in this counter-terrorism operation by the U.S., which has given non-lethal aid and military training to the Ukrainian military over the last few years. However, this is now set to change with the Pentagon’s push to deliver “lethal weaponry” — including anti-aircraft weapons and Javelin missiles — to the Ukrainian government.
The government campaign to quell the civilian uprising in the Donbass region has been brutal, claiming over 10,000 lives according to UN estimates cited by the Wall Street Journal. The Ukrainian government has been rather frank regarding the intentions of this operation, stating that it specifically targets civilians in order “to clean the cities.”
Clean the cities of what exactly? According to an interview aired by the U.S.-funded, pro-government Ukrainian news channel Hromadske TV, the Donbass is home to around 1.5 million people “who are superfluous” and “must be exterminated.” These “superfluous” Ukrainian citizens were called “subhumans” in 2016 by then-Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, also dubbed “Washington’s man in Ukraine.”
Watch | Ukrainian journalist Bogdan Boutkevitch, in an interview with Hromadske TV, states “there is a certain category of people that must be exterminated” in the Donbass region of Ukraine.
Given the stated intention to literally “exterminate” over a million of its people, it is hardly surprising that there has been an uprising in Donbass seeking to stop the planned genocide against them. The forces battling the ethnic cleansing of their people are mostly from the local population, bolstered by Cossack forces as well as volunteers from Russia. The Russian government’s influence is minimal, despite Western and Ukrainian media narratives, as Russian President Vladimir Putin has publicly stated that the Donbass must remain part of Ukraine and has rejected requests from separatists in the region to become part of Russia.
Yet now, with the U.S. seeking to arm the Ukrainian government in their ethnic cleansing campaign, the violence is undoubtedly set to escalate, with civilian deaths certain to result. Though the Pentagon claims that the lethal weaponry it plans to provide is “defensive” in nature, Mattis’ plan to visit — and its stated purpose of reassuring Ukraine of the U.S. commitment to restoring Ukraine’s “territorial integrity” — makes it clear this is not the case. Instead, it shows that the U.S. seeks to enable the Ukrainian government to bring not only the Donbass, but also Crimea, into the fold of the government in Kiev. This, after all, is Poroshenko’s stated goal.
Trading a botched proxy war for a “better” one
The Pentagon’s decision to arm the Ukrainian government is well-timed, given that it coincides with the Trump administration’s decision to stop arming the radical Wahhabists that comprise the “moderate opposition” in Syria seeking to oust its democratically-elected president, Bashar al-Assad.
Given the Syrian government’s ability to make major gains against these “rebels” and Daesh (ISIS), as well as the West’s repeated failures to justify a foreign military intervention, the U.S. has been all but forced to give up its dreams of provoking Russia via the six-year-long proxy war fought in Syria over regional oil and gas interests. High-ranking officials in the Syrian government have recently declared the war in Syria “effectively over.”
With the curtain closing in Syria, Washington needs a new proxy war. Given that containing Russia is the ultimate goal – as it is with China – what better way to step up the pressure than by sending lethal arms to a rabidly anti-Russian, U.S.-backed government in Kiev that is determined to ethnically cleanse Russians? Ukraine, after all, is right on Russia’s border; and the Crimea region, which Poroshenko is determined to return to his control, is now a part of Russia.
However, choosing Ukraine for a new proxy war is more than just convenient. The Washington establishment knows exactly what they are getting into as this has nearly happened once before. In 2015, several U.S. senators — led by John McCain — along with then-Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, pushed to arm the Ukrainian government with lethal weapons.
Russia’s response at the time paints a very clear picture of what could be expected if the U.S. plan to give Ukraine lethal weapons comes to pass. Following the push for sending weapons to Ukraine, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Sergei Ryabkov, told Interfax news agency that U.S. arms supplies to Ukraine would result in a “dramatic outcome” that Russia “will not ignore.” He also stated that Russia would not be able to “stay aside” in the conflict if the U.S. followed through with its promise of providing lethal aid to Kiev.
In terms of what this “dramatic outcome” could entail, the events of 2015 offered two possibilities. Western analysts asserted that the U.S.’ arming of the Ukrainian government would be ”matched by Russian arms to rebels,” creating the pretext for another long-running proxy war with opposing sides armed by either the U.S. or Russia.
However, Russian legislators struck a different tone, with one MP arguing that a move to arm Kiev by the U.S. should be met with Russia sending troops or “using military force” to keep the situation from becoming “too dangerous” to Russia. In addition, The Moscow Times cited Russian defense analysts, including current members of the Ministry of Defense, who asserted that Washington’s attempts to arm Ukraine would be seen as a “declaration of war.”
Having failed in Syria, the elements of the U.S. political establishment hell-bent on provoking Russia by any means necessary have decided to take their proxy war straight to Russia’s doorstep. Unfortunately, a proxy-war conflict in Ukraine will likely garner greater support for U.S. intervention than Syria ever did. Years of fear-mongering by NATO and the Western media about a “Russia invasion” of Ukraine, the “annexation” of Crimea, and the current Russiagate election-meddling “scandal” have certainly greased the wheels for a new proxy war theater — one significantly easier to sell to the U.S. public than was the effort to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Feature photo | John McCain at a rally with Oleh Tyahnybok, leader of the far-right wing nationalist party Svoboda in Kiev, Ukraine, Dec. 15, 2013. Dmitry Lovetsky | AP