Ukrainian crisis: it hasn’t gone away

The conflict in Gaza seems to have largely pushed that in Ukraine off international consciousness. The Guardian, however, reports that the Ukrainian government have been making steady gains against the pro-Russian separatists in the east of the country.

The west has become somewhat quieter about the downing of the Malaysian airliner MH 17 over the last couple of weeks and the Americans seem to have accepted that it was a mistake. The internet is still awash with conspiracy theories about who shot down the plane, why and how but most seem to accept that it was an accident.

What is interesting is that coinciding with the reduced western interest in Ukraine, Russia is not, at least currently, increasing its military involvement. Whether this is due to western sanctions, some sort of deal official or unofficial or simply that Russia either now or never wants / wanted eastern Ukraine is unclear. It may be that Putin would have been happy to partition Ukraine if it had been a low risk / low cost endeavour but since it is now looking more troublesome and, having gained his main prize of Crimea, is willing to let Ukraine retake its other eastern provinces.

The whole episode over Ukraine is even more complex than our history in Northern Ireland. Kiev was once the Russian capital and the Russians ruled Ukraine for many years. Stalin treated the area very badly with an almost entirely man made famine in one of the most productive agricultural areas on earth, which cost millions of lives in an attempt to force collectivised agriculture. Subsequently the Ukrainians welcomed the Germans in 1941 as liberators only to find them another murderous group of rulers. Some Ukrainians supported the Nazis, some the soviets and others were part of alternative groups: some democratic some fascist.

During the rest of the USSR’s history Ukraine was a state but it is unclear to what extent its boundaries were any more than administrative convenience for the Soviet Union. The collapse of the USSR led to Ukraine rapidly becoming a separate country. Ukraine gave up its ex soviet nuclear weapons in exchange for a territorial guarantee from the west and Russia: one which Russia has clearly broken over Crimea.

Equally, however, Crimea had historically been part of Russia. Furthermore at the end of the cold war it had been agreed that NATO would not expand its borders into the old Warsaw Pact nations: something the west has clearly broken.

Ukraine itself had a democratically elected, albeit woefully corrupt and incompetent, president and government prior to its recent overthrow. That overthrow was supported and helped by the west and some of the shock troops of that coup were undoubtedly fascists. The previous government had supported closer ties with Europe but had then switched to supporting closer ties with Moscow following economic pressure.

Ukraine has become the fulcrum of conflict between Russia and the west but this is a conflict which might have been managed better had the west accepted that some of Russia’s interests in the region were entirely legitimate, even laudable.

After the fall of the Berlin wall and then the USSR, the west has at times proclaimed friendship towards Russia but has, all too often, pursued courses of action similar to the containment policies they adopted towards the Soviet Union during the Cold War. To an extent of course that may be a legitimate foreign policy aim: Russia is a powerful country with its own agendas but the west seem to have reached a state whereby many foreign policies issues see Russia and the west as opponents. In Kosovo, we backed the Kosovo Albanians against the Russian supported Serbs. More recently we backed the government groups in Syria against the Russian supported Assad government: at least until it became clear that most of the rebel groups are now extremists who regard Al Qaeda as liberals. Now in Ukraine the west and Russia line up on opposite sides.

Clearly there may be good reasons for some of these decisions but equally they have had unfortunate consequences. Containment of Iran’s nuclear ambitions is much more difficult without Russian help. Russia was also a useful ally against Islamic extremism and it must be remembered that the Soviet Union entered Afghanistan at least in part due to concerns about nascent extremism there. The west, especially America, then merrily supported many of the very people and groups which would go on to form the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

Containing and even humiliating Russia may have seemed like a low risk strategy during Yeltsin’s incompetent and drunken kleptocracy but now against Putin’s more successful and much more assertive Russia it seems in danger of creating a self fulfilling prophecy on the side of both the west and the Russians with each defining their foreign policy objectives in significant measure as opposing the other.

These opposing positions are nothing like as dangerous as during the Cold War and war between Russia and the west remains effectively unthinkable: in part because everyone knows the west would not go to war if Putin ordered his tanks to follow the T34s in 1943/4 rumbling across Ukraine. Indeed the House of Commons Defence Select Committee noted last week that public support for war to defend the Baltic States against a hypothetical Russian attack was well below 50%.

Although unlikely to provoke war these problems have already led to the suggestion that defence spending will have to be increased. Increasing defence spending is likely to be a reasonable objective: creating both low and high skill jobs, pump priming the economy, especially high tech manufacturing, and providing deterrence. However, those objectives do not require one to have a specific enemy against whom to direct that defence expenditure. Britain’s defence spending during the Cold War was deployed against Egypt (militarily successfully and politically disastrously), Argentina and Iraq (militarily and politically successfully: only initially in the latter case) but never against Russia. Defence spending does not by definition require a clear putative enemy to make it worthwhile.

In the latest crisis Russia’s unsubtle and at times bullying behaviour seems to be being matched by unsubtle and hectoring actions from the west. It is in danger of turning cooperative behaviour into antagonistic rivalry to the detriment of all especially those in Ukraine. All this seems to be semi accidental and on the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War we should remember the disasters which accidental chains of events can occasion.

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