Podcasts, What's going on in Ukraine?

Crimea: Skirmishes and Signals in a (mostly) Bloodless War

The editors of Anthropoliteia would again like to welcome the latest in a series of special guest posts from Monica Eppinger as part of our developing Forum What’s Going on in Ukraine?

It is a rare war where the local population and defending army speak the language of the invader so well.  Clearly, shared language facilitated talking through tense stand-offs and other encounters that could have otherwise easily devolved into bloodshed during the invasion of Crimea.  In my first blog post, I identified discourse as a significant feature in Ukrainians’ responses to the invaders.  (Some examples of subsequent encounters made it into my earlier posts here, here, and here.)  In place of the post-Soviet aphasia Sergei Oushakine found 20 years ago, there’s been an explosion of discourse.  That in itself is worth analyzing.  For now, I’m just taking note.  Forget Stratego, Battleship, or other games of traditional tactical maneuver as heuristic; forget tank counts or brigade movements as the only, or even primary, means of understanding and assessing.  This war has consisted of verbal performance to an extent that  invites interaction analysis as a method for apprehending its tactics.  This post shares some of the last military engagements of the invasion.

The 204th Tactical Aviation Brigade in Belbek, Crimea became famous through footage (carried on many local news affiliates in the United States, as well as on youtube) of Col. Yuri Mamchur negotiating with invaders through live fire on March 4.

[On the video, when shooting starts, you can hear one soldier from the ranks shouting, “My khozyayini zdes’!”  (We’re the masters of this house!)  As the two sides get within arm’s reach, another demands from the weapon-toting opponents whether they will open fire on “the Soviet flag,” i.e., the brigade’s flag that  bears Soviet symbols in unchanged reference to its WWII origins.] Col. Mamchur stood his ground and secured a ceasefire.  No doubt the Russian side has its own tales of valor and courage.  I’m not as plugged in, but my sense is that they are matters of more centralized production and are circulated more on national television channels and less through social media than their Ukrainian analogues.  I could be wrong.  I’d love to hear from anyone who knows; add your comment below!

After that incident, the base was besieged.  The brigade opened its own website to spread its own word about the siege conditions.   I was surprised that a Ministry of Defense would permit one of its units to operate its own public communications during a war.  MoDs are famous for centralizing the amount, kind, and tone of communications with non-military audiences.  Remember when the innovation of the second Iraq War in this respect was to “embed” journalists with brigades?  This unit cut out the middleman.  The brigade’s website reported on March 21 that the base received an ultimatum to surrender or it would be “stormed.”  It was stormed.  The site has posted footage of casualties but reported no deaths.  It then reported that Col. Mamchur himself, called on apparently false pretenses to “negotiations,” was disappeared.  He managed to phone his wife and get out the words “I’ve been taken.  I’m on Bakinskaya,” before the call was abruptly terminated.  He remains missing.  One of Col. Mamchur’s command reports the following conversation with the Russian military who took the base, also on the brigade’s website:

— Мы славяне, черт возьми. Вывызвали нашего командира на переговоры. Где он сейчас?  [We’re all Slavs, for Pete’s sake.  You called our commander to negotiations.  Where is he now?]

— Да мне пох*й.  [Fuck off.][1] 

— Это по-вашему нормально?  [Is that, in your language/according to your ways, accepted?][2] 

— А почему нет? Ну взяли, отоспится где-то.  Вы не в том положении, чтобы диктовать условия. [And why not?  We took him, he’ll be sleeping somewhere.    You are in no position to dictate conditions.]

Thus goes discourse in face-to-face encounter, post “legitimation.”  Hardly surprising.  What is surprising was the measured or conversational tone of many pre-“referendum” encounters, cast into stark contrast with exchanges like this. The website shows one way that communication is being accomplished absent face-to-face facilitation.  The more remarkable turn in discourse at this point comes from Ukrainian civilians seeking to communicate or to perform solidarity with soldiers on bases or ships blockaded by Russian military forces.

In the following clip (sent to me by a Ukrainian interlocutor, a Kyiv law prof), this is what you’ll see:  The coast of Crimea.  Looking down the road, an army vehicle flying Russian flags barreling along.  Off the coast, a ship; over the waves, sounds of its reveille, the Ukrainian national anthem.  [The ship is the “Костянтин Ольшанський,” Konstantin Ol’shanks’kiy, of the 5th brigade of the Ukrainian navy, blockaded off the coast of Crimea by Russian ships.  It has not surrendered.] A couple on coast, discreetly, with a text-to-Morse code app, signals.  The text on the screen of the phone reads  Ukraina z vami. [Ukraine is with you.]

Yet again, a master class in how to fight a (mostly) bloodless war.  (And, on the subject of blood and bloodless, one more background note:  two members of the activist collective that produced the clip, Babylon ’13, were disappeared in Crimea last week.  Five days later, they were dumped in Kherson oblast’, southern Ukraine.  They have not yet made any public statements save that they are in medical care and need time for recovery.  Under those circumstances, I was surprised that the couple in a video released after that incident, made behind the lines in Crimea, show their faces.)

Monica Eppinger is an Assistant Professor at the Saint Louis University College of Law. She has extensive experience in diplomacy, serving nine years as a diplomat in the U.S. Foreign Service with tours of duty at the U.S. Consulate General in Kaduna, Nigeria; U.S. Embassy, Kiev, Ukraine; and at the State Department in Washington, D.C. where her responsibilities included policy in the former Soviet Union, Caspian basin energy development, and West African security. Her research concentrates on sovereignty and selfhood. Her main areas of expertise include property, national security, and international law. 

[1] One way that Ukrainians’ use of Russian language differs from Russians’ is in the use of expletives.  Ukrainians use much softer expletives.  I, for example, in 20 years of residence and travel to Ukraine, have heard the expression used here only once out loud.

[2] When he asks, Is this accepted practice/normal for you guys, it is unclear whether the speaker is asking about the use of the word “fuck,” or to the practice of calling someone to negotiations under false pretenses, or to disappearing someone called to negotiations.  Or some combination.


4 thoughts on “Crimea: Skirmishes and Signals in a (mostly) Bloodless War

  1. Ned Garrett says:

    Hi Monica,

    I’ve been wondering what your take on this is. Glad it’s been mostly bloodless so far. Forgive me if I do not feel encouraged about the future.


  2. Monica Eppinger says:

    Hi Ned,

    Thanks so much for checking in. Yes, the future. It looms, and today (March 28) it does not feel far off.

    The Ukrainian press today is full of news of Russian forces massing on all sides of the borders of Ukraine except the far west (think Poland, Slovakia). I’ll post some of this on this blog; Youtube posts from Russian rural highways show columns and columns of armored personnel carriers (APCs) heading towards the Ukrainian border. You have a lot of company in not feeling encouraged about the future.

    The Russian side of the border, or rather the Russian side of the Ukrainian future, feels very closed and predetermined. The Ukrainian side, however, still feels very open. Not all openness is good. But open, nonetheless. And within that openness, subjectivity is unsettled and vast amounts of creative energy are being expended. Neither the present nor the future there are settled. And in that, daylight.



  3. I don’t know anything about the author of this piece, but I wondered what your take on it might be, particularly in light of your wonderful observation about the explosion of discourse in Ukraine. He shows that lines between the “little green men” and civilians are blurring in the Eastern regions; I wondered if discourse is also getting messier… thought I would ask you! http://inmoscowsshadows.wordpress.com/2014/04/13/are-russian-troops-in-eastern-ukraine-some-probably-but-i-dont-think-thats-really-the-point/

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Monica Eppinger says:

    Orysia, thank you for your comment. Your insight was prescient.

    Discourse, and much else, is messier in the East than it had been in Crimea. One clear difference is the object of attack in Crimea [at least back in the spring] was Ukrainian military bases, with occupants operating under (formidable) military discipline. In the East, by contrast, at least at its beginnings in April and May, the targets were town halls staffed by civilians. The “little green men” in the East selected takeover targets seemingly because of the buildings’ symbolic links to Kyiv and the Ukrainian state (not because of, for example, strategic location or because of the particular inhabitants of a building). So: surprised civilians in the East, versus surprised but disciplined soldiers in Crimea.

    A second difference is those carrying out the attacks: instead of troops like the professional and foreign invaders of Crimea, the East saw predominantly irregulars, including some locals (or long-gone natives).

    SIgns are a striking casualty. All sides are still operating in common or mutually intelligible idiom, but its full of lethal glitches. [Note to Saussure: it matters on whose shoulder the talking head sits.] Compared with Crimea, in the East on most sides identities and collective formations are less defined and definitional boundaries more porous. Both issuer and receiver of a communicative act occupy less clearly defined roles and subject positions. Discourse is blurrier, as you say. Exchanges of speech acts and other kinds of communicative practices (kidnappings; discharging weapons; offering or accepting state-subsidized pensions, electricity, gas): signifiers are not necessarily drawn from conventional stock forms and even when they are, signifieds are not as clear or easy to infer. In exchanges of these kinds of communicative acts, sign casualties can be deadly. The signifier of shooting at an aircraft may start out seeming like a clear communicative gesture; the aircraft turns out to be a civilian Malaysian Airlines passenger craft. What signifieds are we to infer? What significance?

    The Ukrainian government organized a response in the East, fighting escalated in July and August, and lethal breaches of ceasefire mark the autumn. Now the “little green men” in eastern Ukraine face Ukrainian regular forces and volunteer battalions of Ukrainian irregulars; those forces find themselves targeting civilian workplaces or neighborhoods wherein little green men have allegedly taken refuge. The nuances and negotiations possible in the Crimea invasion seem a world ago. Discourse in some respects, compared with Crimea, has flattened. Discourse is getting flatter, and, as you say, messier.


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