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  • The coming Russia-Ukraine War: update and analysis

    by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.


    While the United States and a good many countries around the world this weekend have been reflecting on the first anniversary of Donald Trump’s move into the Oval Office, drawing up balance sheets of his promises and achievements, Russia has had a rather different issue on the front-burner:  the coming war with Ukraine.

    The situation in Donbass (South-Eastern Ukraine) has been an intermittent feature of Russia’s political talk shows for the past couple of years, along with the military campaign in Syria and more recently the stages in the preparation for presidential elections on 18 March. 

    To be sure, minds became focused on Donbass in the closing weeks of 2017 as military action on the front lines separating the forces of the self-proclaimed republics of Donetsk and Lugansk enjoying Russian support from Ukrainian militias and armed forces reached an intensity not seen for more than a year. This, despite the heralded exchange of military prisoners by both sides before New Year’s under talks supervised by the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church Kirill.

    Then, this past Thursday there came a wholly new development.  Readers in the United States and Europe may be forgiven for knowing nothing about it as yet.  Only the Russians have placed it under the microscope and have been seeking to give it meaning.  I am speaking about a draft law passed that day by the Ukrainian Parliament (Supreme Rada) which the Russians believe amounts to a declaration of war.

    As usual, the most comprehensive interpretation of this emotion-charged development has been delivered by the head of all Russian television and radio news services, Dmitri Kiselyov on his Sunday evening news wrap-up.


    Dmitri Kiselyov,  News of the Week, Sunday, 21 January 2018


    According to Kiselyov, the new law, which awaits Poroshenko’s signature, ends Kiev’s participation in the Minsk Accords and prepares for war.  The mission in Donbass is no longer described as an “anti-terrorist operation.” The mission now is to send armed forces against “military formations of the Russian Federation” in Donbass.   A military HQ is created to coordinate the military operation to be waged in Donbass. Whereas till now the self-declared republics of Donetsk and Lugansk were under the Minsk Accords considered as negotiating parties, there are henceforth only “occupation administrations” of the Russian Federation on these territories.  Russia is identified as an “aggressor.”  Says Kiselyov, "This makes it all the more convenient for Ukraine to start a war.” In this way, Poroshenko has prepared the way not to pay the country’s foreign debts. In this way he has prepared to stay in power forever.

    The report then switches over to the Vesti reporter on the ground in Donetsk.  Local residents confirm that the law means war.  They see the current moment on the front line as “calm before the storm.”  Donetsk soldiers at their trenches say they are fully ready to engage with the enemy.


    Kiselyov draws back a bit, wondering whether he is not overstating the dangers.  Perhaps the draft law, which Poroshenko still has to sign, will not be implemented, like so much else passed by the Rada.  But it is not the law itself that is the issue. It is the mood in favor of war in Kiev. The facts speak for themselves, he tells us:  Poroshenko has done nothing to implement the Minsk Accords. Not one cease fire along the lines of contact has been observed. There are attacks and deaths every day. Only counter force has pushed back recent Ukrainian attempts to gain territory.  Kiev has written off the population of the two republics. It has cut off all transport and telecoms links. It does not pay pensions and assistance to the needy. It closed the banking system and there are no commercial ties. Kiev does not recognize the population of Donbass. For Kiev the two provinces are merely territory to take back from the occupiers.  

    Other circumstantial evidence that war at this moment is in the interests of Kiev comes from the economic front. The EU has refused to extend 600 million euros of credits to Ukraine due to corruption. The IMF recently refused a tranche of $800 million over failure to introduce reforms. Meanwhile, in 2019 Ukraine has to start repaying earlier loans. This will come to 14 billion dollars a year, which amounts to one-half the state budget of Ukraine.  Due to the dire economic conditions, Poroshenko, Grossman and all the other government officials in Kiev have become utterly unpopular, They have no chance of winning any elections.

    Apart from Kiev, who else wants a big war in Ukraine? .For its part, Europe is fed up with Ukraine.  Macron and Merkel no longer are keen to continue the Normandy format of negotiations.

    However, the United States stands out as a backer of war. Washington has started delivering lethal weapons including the Javelin anti-tank missile system free of charge to Kiev. Trainers are now on location. The US has budgeted $350 million for the war in Ukraine.

    And what does Russia say to all this.  Per Kiselyov, for Russia, the best would be to stay with Minsk. But it seems there is no way back.

    Analysis and Forecast


    The Maidan demonstrations which culminated in the coup d’etat of 22 February 2014 in Kiev overthrowing the government of nominally pro-Russian Premier Yanukovich have been seen  by some analysts as an operation of the Neocon dominated U.S. State Department under Barack Obama to take revenge for their humiliation a year earlier when Obama reneged on his declaration of “red lines” in Syria over chemical weapons attacks. To the surprise and dismay of the Deep State, Obama agreed to a Russian proposal that they oversee the destruction of Assad’s chemical arsenal instead of ordering an air attack on Damascus with the objective of overthrowing the Syrian dictator.  

    Now that the United States has been again and still more decisively humiliated in Syria by the nearly complete military victory of Assad forces with substantial Russian air assistance, the Deep State once again is looking to Ukraine to wreak its vengeance on Russia.


    It is clear that the Kremlin has very little to gain and a great deal to lose economically, diplomatically from a campaign now against Kiev.  If successful, as likely would be the case given the vast disparity in military potential of the two sides, it could easily become a Pyrrhic victory.  But notwithstanding Kiselyov’s calming words, it may well be that Moscow feels it has no choice. Kiev must be neutered now and very quickly, a new provisional government must be installed now and very quickly lest the United States and its NATO allies have the time to intervene militarily, creating the conditions for the outbreak of WWIII.


    Watch this space in the coming days.


    © Gilbert Doctorow, 2018

          * * * *

     Gilbert Doctorow is an independent political analyst based in Brussels. His latest book, Does the United States Have a Future? was published on 12 October 2017. Both paperback and e-book versions are available for purchase on and all affiliated Amazon websites worldwide. See the recent professional review    For a video of the book presentation made at the National Press Club, Washington, D.C. on 7 December 2017 see


  • Patriarch Kirill’s interview with Dmitri Kiselyov, 7 Jan 2018: Further thoughts

    by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.


    I prepared my essay on the Christmas Day interview of Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill in great haste, to be sure that this “scoop” would be mine.  As it turns out, I need not have rushed, since the topic was subsequently left untouched by all other political analysts having an interest in Russia both in country and abroad.  And while I remain persuaded that the remarks on Russia’s uniqueness by the Patriarch are of great importance to all those following the trajectory of the country’s rise on the world stage, with the benefit of time for reflection, I am not surprised they have been overlooked.

    In fact the vast majority of my confrères write almost exclusively about the headline issues like the candidates for Russia’s 18 March presidential election or about the Russia-Gate controversy, that is to say they focus on the same issues that are covered by The New York Times or the Washington Post, even if their political positions are 180 degrees at variance with those of this mainstream press. I offer that as an observation of the real situation, not necessarily as a criticism, for there are among them many who will justify skipping an item like the views of the Russian Patriarch as an exercise in intellectual history that is marginal to real world events. Their mind-set is as cynical as Stalin’s, encapsulated in the riposte attributed to him: “And how many divisions does the Pope have?”

    Moreover, the Russian Orthodox Church is not a subject that attracts much interest among our secularist journalists and readership on both sides of the ideological divide over President Trump. Those who have looked to find influences on Russian state policy and on Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin have looked in entirely other directions. I think for example of the long fascination of so many of our pundits and even area specialists with the exotic Eurasianist theories, and of one of its most colorful exponents, professor Alexander Dugin. Until he was fired from Moscow State University, and even after that there were those who found his very existence congenial, because his quackery and seeming closeness to power could be presented as a modern day Rasputin in the Kremlin.

    By contrast, the leading Orthodox clergy who are close to Putin and the Kremlin are world class theologians and diplomats, charismatic television personalities, composers of widely respected religious music, and persons of much higher intellectual merit than your average journalist or pundit. Kirill is first among them.  Hence, the disinterest of our media. As for our specialist community, I imagine they will eventually get around to Kirill and he will yet be the subject of a doctoral dissertation or two, if only for his leadership of the traditionalist alliance with the Catholic Church against global liberalism.

    Then there is another prejudice working against any suggestion that the Orthodox Church might be influencing state policy, and not just be an instrument used by an authoritarian state to consolidate its shaky power.  The possibility that the Church might have its own power base in the population making it an ally rather than a servant of the state is not something that Russia’s detractors care to entertain.

    No sooner had I published my essay on Kirill’s interview last Sunday than I realized I had only scratched the surface. Most of my article was a summary and/or my own verbatim translation of the Patriarch’s statements that I construe as constituting a new Russian messianism. The analysis portion of the essay missed some obvious and essential points.  I became even more aware of how much there remained to say about the interview when, a few hours later, the Moscow Patriarchate put up on the web its official Russian language transcript of the interview. Reading it through, I found in the late portions of the interview, which I had not had time to transcribe myself from the youtube video, there are some further connections between the Patriarch’s views and ongoing Russian foreign policy in the Middle East.

    For all of these reasons, I return to the interview here with the following further thoughts.

    * * * *


    First and most pressing, we have to consider closely the three historical examples that Kirill cited to demonstrate how Russians have very often put the inner voice of conscience, that is, moral values, alongside and even above pragmatism in foreign affairs.  These examples were protection of Orthodox Christians in the Holy Land which got Nicholas I’s Russia embroiled in the Crimean War, the Russian campaigns in the Balkans in the 1870s under Alexander II on behalf of their Orthodox Slavic brethren and against their Ottoman oppressors, and Nicholas II’s decisions in favor of the Orthodox Serbs in 1914 that took Russia into World War I.

    It is stunning that Kirill has chosen precisely these examples, because each of them was a disaster for the Russian state, none greater than the final one, which brought down the dynasty, with all the horrors that followed.

    It is noteworthy that in at least the last two examples society imposed the course taken by the State, that is to say there were essentially bottom-up social movements that forced the hand of the Government, a scenario that runs directly counter to the commonly held notions of how Autocracy was supposed to work. But this is a cavil which does not contradict the Patriarch’s overarching idea that men can be motivated to fight and die for causes that speak to their heart, and not in defense of geopolitical objectives. That has validity across many countries and continents. In the United States, it was a key point raised by Henry Kissinger in his 1994 work Diplomacy, when he explained why the Realist Theodore Roosevelt was unable to take the United States into WWI, though he very much wanted to do so, whereas his successor, the Idealist Woodrow Wilson was able to thanks to his call “to make the world safe for democracy.”

    As we see later in the interview, there is a direct connection between the examples which Kirill took from the pre-revolutionary Russian past and his vision of present day issues amounting to the Cross for Russia to bear. The commonality is Russia’s role as protector of Orthodoxy in the East, that is in the Holy Sites of Palestine and in the cradle of Orthodox Christianity, what is now Syria and Iraq.

    Half-way through the Christmas Day interview, Kirill delivers a fascinating account of the issues and of his personal involvement, as well as how they were brought to the attention of Vladimir Putin well before Russia intervened in Syria.

    Vladimir Putin has consistently presented the need to strike at the Islamic State in Syria and deal a death blow to radical Islam before it could move on Russia.  Patriarch Kirill took the same line in the past and most particularly in his January 2016 interview with Dmitri Kiselev.  However, he tells us here that Russia’s military intervention in Syria also had as motivation to save what was left of the Christian community in Syria.

    As we read these lines, we must bear in mind the long ties between Russia and this part of the world, something that is hardly ever evoked in Western media coverage of the war in Syria. As I noted in my report last year on the Mariinsky Orchestra concert in liberated Palmyra, St. Petersburg intellectual society had a self-image as a twin city of Syrian Palmyra throughout the 19th century for reasons going back to their own Catherine the Great and a female ruler of ancient Palmyra.  Oriental studies and themes for the arts may have been widespread in 19th century Europe, particularly France with its proximity to North Africa which it was then colonizing, but Russia was physically closer to the Christian East and Russian society directed its gaze there.  The Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society was founded in the last quarter of the century to assist the substantial flows of pilgrims and scholars. These ties that bind must not be ignored.


    Patriarch Kirill:

    “Already in 2014, it was clear that conflicts on the territory of Syria were being incited by radical forces which, if they came to power, would begin by liquidating the Christian presence in this country. That is precisely why the Christians actively supported Assad and his government, - because in the country a certain balance of forces was secured and that is very important. People felt they were being protected.  In 2014, notwithstanding warnings about the danger, I nonetheless decided to travel to Syria. I was in Damascus and led a church service there, and I saw what enthusiasm there was among the people. In conversations both with Muslims and with Christians, meeting with politicians, I understood that if the Islamic radicals come to power in Syria, the first ones who would suffer would be the Christians. As already happened in Iraq, where 85% of the Christians were either killed or driven out of the country. I visited Iraq still under the regime of Hussein, including in the northern regions, in Mosul. I visited the ancient Christian monasteries. I saw the piety of the people and was overjoyed that in Muslim surroundings the Christian churches existed in peace. Now practically nothing of this remains – the monasteries have been destroyed, the churches were blown up. The same could happen in Syria. Therefore the participation of Russia was connected not only with solving questions about which I do not have full competence and about which I do not consider it possible to speak, relating to the stabilization of the situation, and not to allow…..military threats, not to allow power to be seized by the terrorists. There was a very important idea – to defend the Christian minority. Back in 2013, when Moscow was celebrating the 1025th anniversary of the Christian baptism of Rus’, the heads of the Orthodox Churches arrived. When they met with Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, one of the strongest messages concerned precisely the request that Russia take part in the defense of Christians in the Near East. And I am happy that this happened. Thanks to the participation of Russia a genocide of Christians was averted.

    “Now there arises the question of restoring peace in this country, justice, security, solving a huge number of economic issues. And, what is especially close to us, - the restoration of churches, monasteries, monuments, including Muslim and ancient monuments.  Our Church is participating in rendering humanitarian assistance. We are working both in our own name, and in addition we have a bilateral agreement with the Catholic Church to jointly provide humanitarian assistance. In other words, we are acting in various areas, - I hope they will make their contribution to real assistance to those who are still suffering in Syria.”


    * * * *



    For the complete transcription (in Russian) of the interview, see


    © Gilbert Doctorow, 2018

          * * * *

     Gilbert Doctorow is an independent political analyst based in Brussels. His latest book, Does the United States Have a Future? was published on 12 October 2017. Both paperback and e-book versions are available for purchase on and all affiliated Amazon websites worldwide. See the recent professional review    For a video of the book presentation made at the National Press Club, Washington, D.C. on 7 December 2017 see

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