Faint echoes from Ukraine reach home

From Timothy Garton Ash’s piercing analysis in the Guardian.

Start by abandoning the labels “ethnic Ukrainians” and “ethnic Russians”. They mean almost nothing. What you have here is a fluid, complex mix of national, linguistic, civic and political identities. There are people who think of themselves as Russians. There are those who live their lives mainly in Russian, but also identify as Ukrainians. There are innumerable families of mixed origins, with parents and grandparents who moved around the former Soviet Union. Most of them would rather not have to choose. In a poll conducted in the first half of February, only 15% of those asked in the Kharkiv region and 33% around Donetsk wanted Ukraine to unite with Russia.

For Ukrainians and Russians, substitute Irish and British and maybe throw in Northern Irish. It rings a little bell doesn’t it?

And from Crimea, how opinion can suddenly shift.  Not at all like the circumstances of 1916 but still, a dramatic example of how violence can shift opinion.

In the same poll, the figure for Crimea was 41%. But then take a month of radicalising politics and Russian takeover, with Ukrainian-language channels yanked off TV. Add relentless reporting on the Russian-language media of a “fascist coup” in Kiev, exacerbated by some foolish words and gestures from victorious revolutionaries in Kiev. Subtract Crimean Tatars and Ukrainians living in Crimea, who largely boycott the referendum. Season with a large pinch of electoral fraud. Hey presto, 41% becomes 97%.

It is not just Russian “political technology” that changes numbers and loyalties. What happens in such traumatic moments is that identities switch and crystallise quite suddenly, like an unstable chemical compound to which you add one drop of reactant. Yesterday, you were a Yugoslav; today, a furious Serb or Croat.

So everything that is done in and for Ukraine over the next weeks and months must be calculated to keep that identity-compound from changing state

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  • Did earlier EU expansionist intervention trigger the destabilisation of the region?

    An association agreement with Ukraine – the issue which prompted the crisis after Viktor Yanukovych turned his back on the EU to sign up to a cheap credit deal with Russia last year – was brought forward. ..

    Cameron said: “The point I made in the council meeting is ‘Look of course there are consequences for Britain if you look at financial services, there are consequences for France if you look at defence, there are consequences for some European countries if you look at energy’.” .. source

  • sergiogiorgio

    I think its a bit of a stretch paralleling Crimea to this little madhouse backwater. However I’ll be checking the evening skies around Belfast for the Russian paratroopers.

  • Banjaxed

    I remember, when visiting Estonia in the 80s/90s, how visceral the antipathy was between the native population and ‘bussed-in’ Russians. After annexation of the Baltic States by the Soviet Union in 1948, native Russians were moved there in large numbers, eventually building their own towns and settlements and rarely, if ever, mixing on a social basis with the native population. In addition, most of the police were of Russian stock which added to the tensions. With independence from the Soviet Union just around the corner and dependent on the result of a referendum, the native Estonians were extremely worried as to the numbers of the Russian population, which was well into the 40%+ and rising, how they would vote and if they would have the decisive voice on the separation from the Soviets. Similarly in Latvia where the Russian sector was almost 50%. (Planter and Gael, how are ye!) It is therefore not surprising when one sees a similar course of events evolving in the Ukraine.

    Nonetheless, if one also looks at the strategic position of the Crimean Peninsula and its importance to Russia and leaving aside the hypocrisy and cant coming from London and Washington in relation to the invasion of a sovereign country – Iraq springs into view, for example – it’s not difficult to understand the fears of Moscow given that Russia is almost completely surrounded by US bases. You will also recall the furore caused over a proposed US base in Poland several years ago. All Russia needed was another hostile base on their Southern extremity! So when Ukraine started to play footsie with the EU and US, it was not difficult to foresee that there might be consequences. And verily, it came to pass…

    What else could Putin do to retain credibility at home? Given that Russia is an economic basket case and with his own popularity sliding fast (as if that mattered to a virtual dictator!) he had to be seen to act as the macho persona his propaganda photos depicted. So when John Kerry and his ventriloquist dummy, William Hague, went along trying to bribe the Ukrainian government with all sorts of goodies and threatening sanctions, it was a God-given chance for Putin to act as a saviour to his ‘beleagured’ fellow Russians and copperfasten his southern appoaches at the same time. And what sanctions were they going to impose? Was it a mere coincidence that the rest of Europe was extremely quiet when it came to threats. Would it have something to do with Russian hands on the gas tap? FYI, 30% of Europe’s gas supply is bought from Russia. And why Britain again? Were we going to re-open the mines and produce gas from coal?

    Once again, the clumsy and hamfisted nature of Western diplomacy gave an excuse to an evil regime to act, in their eyes, ‘the good guys’ and on their terms.

  • “After annexation of the Baltic States by the Soviet Union in 1948, native Russians were moved there in large numbers, eventually building their own towns and settlements and rarely, if ever, mixing on a social basis with the native population. In addition, most of the police were of Russian stock which added to the tensions.”


    The difference between Ukraine and the Baltics is that in the former all inhabitants over about 35-40 years old would be bilengual because before 1992 Russian was the national language and Ukrainian the republic language and afterwards Ukrainian became the national language and Russian remained as a local language. With all due respect to Prof. Garton Ash, the language that you speak at home determines your ethnicity–although not necessarily your political identity. There are native Russian speakers who identity as Ukrainians for a number of reasons. There may be older Ukrainian speakers who identify with Russia because they were raised on the ideology of the Soviet Union.

    Because Ukraine was part of the Russian Empire for so much longer than the Baltic countries and because both Ukrainian and Russian are East Slavic languages, unlike Estonian, which is related to Finnish and Hungarian, Latvian, which I don’t know what it’s related to and Lithuanian, which is a West Slavic language like Polish, the ties are closer in Ukraine. Ukraine suffered through a much more recent version of the Irish famine in the late 1920s and early 1930s, and unlike the Irish famine, which was natural in origin but badly managed, the Ukrainian famine was created in order to force collectivization of the farming sector.

    So if you want a comparison of Ukraine with Northern Ireland, think of what NI would be like if all the nationalists actually did speak Irish as their everyday language instead of just a few phrases, and many unionists spoke it as well. And if Britain were not a democracy but a country like imperial Germany. The Six Counties had been compared to Crimea or parts of eastern Ukraine. The main difference between the two situations is that when Britain decolonized in Ireland it adjusted the border to take account of then demographic reality, whereas Russia in 1994 never redrew the border and in fact promised to respect it in exchange for Ukraine giving up control of former Soviet nuclear weapons. Thus, it would be like Britain seizing part of an integrated Ulster from Ireland in 1940. This would probably have had a major influence on Washington’s decision to help Britain with lend lease in 1940-41 and to ally itself with London in December 1941.

  • PaddyReilly

    Hey presto, 41% becomes 97%.

    A welcome indication of the accuracy of ‘polls’ commissioned by parties who have an interest in their outcome.

    The Ukraine is divided by a line through the middle, South and East of which the people are Orthodox, Russian speaking, pro-Yanukovitch, and North and West of which they are Uniate, prefer to speak Ukrainian, and fancy Tymoshenko.


    The recognition of this line as the new border is the only democratic and feasible future. You can get away with ignoring 800,000 people’s national aspirations, as with Northern Ireland, but you can’t hope to ignore tweny million.

  • Banjaxed


    In fairness, I wasn’t actually trying to make a comparison between NI and Ukraine. Certainly the ‘plantation’ of ethnic Russians into the former ‘buffer’ states, I would maintain, was a pre-planned strategy to ‘bolster’ any possible flagging of ethnic support from Mother Russia. This one aspect could obviously bear comparison with the deliberate introduction of lowland Scots and English into Ulster, The Pale, etc, having already been pacified.

    However, the more I think on it, the more similarities can be drawn. And it all comes back to colonialism/imperialism – its imposition, its influence, its aftermath and its legacy. While I would accept most of Garton-Ash’s observations on fluidity in ethnicity and identity, in my albeit limited experience, there never was any doubt as to who was the puppet master as evidenced in Hungary and Czechoslovakia when they tried to loosen their strings. And so in Ukraine.

    Of course, Moscow is not alone in this practice. Witness the destabilisation of Central and Southern American countries by the actions of the US and their placemen for fear of affecting its ‘interests’.

    Somehow it never ceases to amaze me that the stronger a country becomes, its paranoia increases at at a greater speed.

  • Floreat Ultonia

    @T Mitch: briefly on languages, Ukrainian and Russian are related and mutually intelligible. Similarly Finnish and Estonian. Latvian and Lithuanian are related but to a lesser extent. There are few links between Lithuanian and Russian other than modern loan-words, and barely any at all between the Finno-Ugric pair and the Slavic. Hungarian’s relationship to the other is structural in grammar etc. but with few related words.

    While watching a rare NI win in Tallinn some years ago I was chatting in basic Russian to some conscript squaddies. When their Estonian-speaking Sergeant got bored and wandered off, they were more interested in swapping their cap badges etc for western cigarettes.

  • DC

    I think Crimea and Northern Ireland have a lot in common, the News Letter is conducting a poll on support for Russian actions on Crimea, I would have thought its readership might have drawn parallels. At the moment 37% agree with Russia, 63% do not.

    Whether or not its online viewers reflect its traditional readership is another thing, for instance a lot of non-unionist traffic might be coming in from elsewhere to comment on Billy Hutchinson and to leave their mark on that one, they might also take part in the poll too.

  • Framer

    For all the staff located in Ukraine the BBC has still not reported the turnout in the referendum which is the only figure of importance given the boycott, as in the NI border poll in 1973.
    It had the same 97% in favour on I recall a 60% turnout which meant a real NO vote of about 25%.

  • DC

    Framer – do you support Russia’s action over Crimea?

  • Framer,

    I’m fairly sure that on Sunday evening BBC World News reported a turnout of 80%. They would have got that figure from the pro-Russia organizers so it could be untrue, I suppose.

  • Harry Flashman

    We talk of the situation in the Crimea, the Baltics, the Balkans and indeed around the world and we acknowledge the huge importance of ethnic/cultural/linguistic/religious differences.

    We take it for granted that such differences are important and lead to very real conflict and always have done.

    And yet when it comes to our western European countries we blithely assume that such issues don’t matter, that somehow western Europeans are above all that sort of thing (this despite the glaringly obvious fact that in living memory western Europeans were slaughtering each other in numbers never previously imaginable in history).

    Whence comes this complacency? Is it listening to the bland pap of the media? Is it the indoctrination of the schools (the Soviets were pretty good at that and yet look where we are today)?

    Why do we think that ethnic tensions aren’t going to cause precisely the same problems in Britain, France, Holland, Germany etc in the future?

    Culture/ethnicity matters, it always has done, it always will do so. Visitors to Northern Ireland couldn’t even begin to tell the difference between the descendants of the Gael and the descendants of the Planter and yet that mass migration of four hundred years ago still rankles and still causes people to have murderous feelings for their neighbours.

    The political division in England for the best part of a millennium was based on the division of spoils between the blokes who came over from France in 1066 and the natives who saw their land and power usurped. It’s the nasty little secret of English politics that no one likes to admit to.

    Same as with Scotland; politics and how the nation developed were based on cultural, ethnic and religious divisions.

    So now in western Europe tens of millions of people of a completely different ethnic, cultural and religious origin have arrived. Many of course adapt and integrate, just as happened in the Balkans, Crimea, Ireland etc but many do not and many of the natives feel usurped from their native land.

    But of course that won’t cause a problem in the future, no it never does, does it? I mean Europeans have shown the world down through history how tolerant and welcoming they are of non-indigenous cultures haven’t they? The state-run media and the education system can successfully indoctrinate the people and obliterate the blindingly obvious differences that exist between ethnic groups at street and village level, just as they did so successfully in the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. The middle classes will convince everyone that everything is absolutely fine and we all get on like a house on fire.

    There’ll be no problems in the future, trust me. All that stuff is a thing of the past.

    Just like it was in the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia.

  • IJP

    I made similar points on my blog yesterday – but with the key additional point that “Russian” often really means “Soviet/nostalgic”: http://ianjamesparsley.wordpress.com/2014/03/19/simplistic-view-of-identity-causes-western-confusion/

  • IrelandNorth

    If it’s a crime to partition Crimea from the rest of Ukraine in the early 21st century, was it not likewise to partition Ireland in the early 20th century? Did using military muscle become unfashionable at 23:59hrs on the 31st of December 1999? If so, how does one explain Iraq and Afghanistan? How acceptable is it for EU leaders to lable “annexation” decisions which have at least some modicum of democracy however imperfect, in stark contrast to European colonial powers wholesale land grab of Asia and Africa in previous centuries. No wonder they’re limiting their commentary to the late 20th and early 21st centuries. The US is jockeying for global ideological hegemony with the EU as proxy, and former USSR/CCCP satellite nations in their proposed global real estate portfolio. Yalta is being reviewed, it seems. Eamon McCann’s article in The Irish Times on Thursday spoke volumes, if underscoring Europes complicity in provoking the crisis to the detriment of the US. This is not what reluctant Euro-Feds voted for, leaders of ex-colonial nations need to cultivate some humility.