New Internationalist

Emotion overwhelms reason in Ukraine

Soldier in the Crimea [Related Image]
Sasha Maksymenko under a CC Licence under a Creative Commons Licence

The breakneck speed and complete unexpectedness of the developments around Ukraine and Crimea make it very difficult to analyse the situation in a detached and impartial manner. The spirits are high on all sides, and emotions overwhelm the weak voices of reason, which is only natural, if unfortunate, in a critical situation.

Crimea, a peninsula jutting into the northern part of the Black Sea, was conquered by Russians from the Ottoman Empire in the late 18th century, during the reign of Catherine the Great. It remained a part of Russia (as one of the Soviet republics) until 1954, when, under Nikita Khrushchev, it was transferred from Russia to Ukraine. The gesture was seen as largely symbolic (marking the 300th anniversary of the Russian-Ukrainian union). It could have had certain sentimental value for Khrushchev, a native of Ukraine, and it made certain logistical sense, since Crimea does not share a land border with Russia. Sixty years ago, no-one could have dreamed of the break-up of the Soviet Union, and people from all over the vast country continued to flock to Crimea, one of the few Soviet resorts on a warm sea.

And yet, the Soviet Union did break up – and reasonably peacefully at that, compared to the break-ups of many other former empires. To be sure, certain pockets of tension and territorial claims have sprung up – Nagorno-Karabakh, contested between Armenia and Azerbaijan; Transistria, a predominantly Russian enclave in Moldova; Abkhazia and South Ossetia, claimed by Georgia but forcibly converted into breakaway quasi-states after the Russian-Georgian conflict of 2008. Crimea was another contentious point – seemingly less active, but smouldering beneath the surface.

The majority of Crimeans are Russian speakers with strong leanings towards Russia. Sevastopol, one of the largest cities on the peninsula, is the home base of Russia’s Black Sea fleet and universally considered to be ‘the city of Russian military glory’. Most Crimeans were unhappy with the central government in Kiev, which was stripping the region of self-governance and sending increasingly corrupt officials to work in the local bodies of authority. The Crimeans especially resented the policy of cultural and linguistic Ukrainization, even though such attempts on the part of central authorities were half-hearted, inconsistent and ultimately doomed to fail in the Russian-speaking region. Add to the complexity the issue of Crimean Tatars, an indigenous nation expelled from the peninsula by Stalin after World War Two for their alleged collaboration with Hitler: the independent Ukrainian government encouraged their repatriation to Crimea, another source of tension and split allegiances.

While Russia was trying to lure Ukraine back into its fold, at least economically, and seemed to have successfully persuaded President Viktor Yanukovich to drop the association with the European Union in favour of closer ties with Russia, the rally against this sudden change of heart snowballed into mass public protests, which soon turned violent, leaving over 100 people dead on both sides; in the aftermath of the disaster, Yanukovich fled, leaving a vacuum of authority and general confusion in his wake. Apparently Russian President Vladimir Putin seized the chance, prompting pro-Russian forces and the Black Sea fleet service personnel to take control over Crimea, and the self-proclaimed local Parliament to announce an improvised referendum, which was organized within mere days and conducted without any credible international supervision. The landslide results (about 97 per cent voting in favour of joining Russia) should not be taken too seriously, but it is worth keeping in mind that a fair referendum would have probably yielded the same overall result, though not so overwhelmingly. It is also worth noting that most Crimean Tatars boycotted the vote.

After this, again with characteristic speed, Putin addressed the nation with a speech replete with Cold War rhetoric and multiple grievances about the West’s ‘double standards’ (the Kosovo precedent seemed to have left an especially painful mark). The accession of Crimea into the Russian Federation was then whooshed through both chambers of the parliament and signed by the president. Neither Ukraine nor anyone in the West recognized this move; even Russia’s closest allies in the former Soviet Union, such as Belarus, refrained from acknowledging Crimea as part of Russia, at least de jure.

Against the background of this expansion and in the face of Western sanctions, Putin’s ratings in Russia were said to have soared. It is hard to say whether this is indicative of any reality now or in the near future, since the two years of Putin’s third term (fourth, if we count Dmitry Medvedev’s interregnum) have brought the most brutal onslaughts on free speech, free press, free opinion and independent polling since the 1990s. While peaceful protesters are now routinely being slapped with hefty fines or put behind bars (so far, briefly) by the hundreds, it is remarkable that dozens of thousands made it to the streets of Moscow for an anti-war march.

What can the West do? So far, the sanctions against Russia have been largely symbolic, but the problem with them is that any discontinuation of ties with the West might play into Putin’s hands, who would lash out at the few liberal-minded people still remaining in Russia and paint them as scapegoats – with all the strings of propaganda in his hands, it would be a no-brainer. Dealing with Putin while keeping open the door for the ‘normal Russia’ to emerge is going to be an excruciatingly difficult balancing act, both for the international community and within the country.

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  1. #1 Nizar Visram 27 Mar 14

    We are missing a very pertinent point here.

    Washington intervened blatantly in the internal affairs of Ukraine, pouring some $5 billion since the 1990s—by the admission last December of the US undersecretary of state for Europe and Eurasia, Victoria Nuland—into programs aimed at fashioning a political instrument for pro-Western regime change in the eastern European country.

    Nuland herself made at least four trips to Kiev in the course of the recent upheavals, handing out bread and cookies to the neo-fascist “protesters” in Independence Square and holding meetings with opposition figures including the leader of the anti-Semitic and fascistic Svoboda party.

  2. #2 Frank 28 Mar 14

    Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1990, the NATO countries, and in particular the US, have been endeavoring to expand their influence both militarily, politically and financially in an Eastward direction towards Russia.

    When the two Germanys were reunited in that same year, Russia under Gorbachev raised no objections. Since then, the EU has expanded into the former USSR satellite countries of Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and the former Czechslovakia and at the same time incorporated most of them into NATO.

    Add to that the NATO bombing of the former Jugoslavia, a former communist Russian ally, broke up the country into Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Kosovo, Macedonia etc in 1999 all of whom are now aligned with the EU.

    Next in 2011, NATO bombs Libya on the pretext to remove a brutal dictator. Until then the citizens of Libyia had enjoyed the highest standard of living in North Africa. Free healthcare, free education to university level, free gas etc. It is notable that the first thing the ’rebels’ did after Gaddafi's murder was to install a privately owned central bank.

    The US has a history of toppling democratically elected governments, who are not willing to swallow wholesale the tenets of privatization of state assets, the control of government by corporate interests and any programs that benefit poor people at the expense of a rich elite. Notable examples are Mossadeq of Iran in 1953, Allende of Chile in 1973. It has also supported right wing guerrillas to overthrow socialist governments, for example the Contras of Nicaragua.

    The CIA was involved in the attempt to overthrow the democratically elected President of Venezuela, the late Hugo Chavez, but it did not succeed for more than a few days. The US is now trying to instigate riots in Caracas to overthrow President Maduro.

    A pattern of US foreign policy emerges, best summed up by the book
    ’Confessions of an Economic Hit Man’ The strategy commences with the IMF lending the target country billions of US dollars (conjured out of thin air) with the proviso that the country privatize state assets and use the loan to buy materiel from US corporations. Failing that the next step is to fund right wing militias to topple the current government. If this does not work the ’no fly zone’ and invasions commence, as we can see with Irag and Afghanistan, where the country was bombed back into the stone age.

    Then the US has the temerity to install nuclear missiles in Poland and Czechoslovakia, supposedly as defense against Iran, but actually pointed at Russia. Russia is starting to feel somewhat threatened by US hegemony.

    The situation in the Ukraine was instigated by the CIA using Blackwater mercenaries and right wing ex nazi militias in order to unseat a democratically elected pro Russian President. Obviously Putin was not going to sit idly by, while a right wing fascist government was installed on Russia's border.

    Russia's only warm water port is in Sevaspol in Crimea, which was ceded to the Ukraine by Krushchev. There is no way that Putin was going to have the Russian Navy checkmated by the US and its access to the Mediterranean effectively blocked, especially with regard to the situation in Syria.

    No matter what John Kerry and his duo of neocon women Samantha Power and Victoria Nuland, (who incidentally is married to Robert Kagan, one of the founders of PNAC) plus that twerp Cameron pontificate about, Putin is never going to back down over Crimea.

    Kerry rambles on about International Law being violated by Russia, but what about the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan ? In any case, the US is not a member of the International Criminal Court.

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