Thursday, 19 February 2015

Demonising Russia won't stop bloodshed in the Ukraine

Despite a ceasefire agreement, signed in Minsk last week, the Ukrainian president, Petro Poreshenko, and his supporters apparently have ‘no doubt’ that the United States will provide their armed forces with weapons to fight anti-government insurgents in south-eastern Ukraine.  There appears to be an increased appetite among belligerent advisers in Washington to escalate a crisis which has caused devastation for civilians in the region. 

Providing the Kiev regime with weapons, openly, would likely transform a deadly civil war, complicated by the Ukraine’s delicate geo-political situation, into a genuine proxy conflict between the US and Russia.
Recently, I read Richard Sakwa’s masterful book, Frontline Ukraine: Crisis in the Borderlands.  It’s a serious, academic analysis, which makes a change from polemical journalism cheering on one side or another in the war.  One of its important contentions is that the conflict, including the economic sanctions and breakdown in relationships, is one result of ‘the decay of contemporary diplomacy’. 

‘Abusive and condemnatory rhetoric took the place of rational debate’.

That tendency is continuing apace, despite the Minsk agreement.  Michael Fallon, the UK defence minister, has made pre-emptive noises about Russia ‘destabilising’ the Baltic States by promoting ethnic tensions in Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia.    It’s an interesting claim in some respects, because it rests on the fact that exclusive, nationalist regimes in those countries continue to foster discontent among their minority, Russian speaking populations.

Statements from both Washington and London, in particular, demonise Vladimir Putin, ignore  grievances of people in eastern Ukraine and gloss over the origins and character of the regime in Kiev.  Reports on the television and in newspapers, with very few exceptions, echo the same themes.  There is little emphasis on the scale of human tragedy engulfing south eastern Ukraine or how it could have been prevented.

Sakwa’s book identifies two separate but closely related crises, which have plunged the country into political turmoil and then into war.  Firstly, he says that there is a ‘Ukrainian crisis’ - the ongoing struggle between nationalists, who want to create a mono-cultural, Ukrainian speaking nation, within the Ukraine’s current boundaries, and pluralists, who want a state which reflects different cultural and linguistic traditions, particularly Russian culture and the Russian language.  The former he describes as ‘monist’.  This first strand is complicated by ongoing competition for power between oligarchs in the Ukraine, which he believes underlies many political clashes that are then coloured with a more ideological hue.   

Secondly, there is a ‘Ukraine crisis’.  This is the wider, geopolitical tug of war, between Russia and the west, which has taken place since the break-up of the Soviet Union.  Recently, it involved an attempt to bring the Ukraine into the orbit of the EU (and, by implication, Atlantic security arrangements), the finance and support of ‘regime change’ in Kiev and the installation of a government along the ‘monist’ model.  Moscow has responded with its own measures, designed to protect its strategic interests, including using forces based in Crimea to secure the peninsula and subsequently incorporating it into Russia.  It has also provided moral and strategic support, the extent of which it contests, to the anti-Kiev forces in eastern Ukraine.

If you want to read about the origins and the histories of these two crises since 1991, the breakdown of relationships which led to war and intrigues between Ukrainian oligarchs, I’d urge you to read Frontline Ukraine.  I want only to touch upon a couple of related points, as regards the latest developments around Minsk, as well as the way in which the conflict has been reported.

Most strikingly, there’s the failure of either western media or western politicians to acknowledge the ‘Ukrainian’ dimension of the war. 

The forces in eastern Ukraine, or Novorossiya, as leaders in Donetsk and Lugansk prefer, are referred to as ‘pro-Russian’, ‘Russian backed’ or even, simply, ‘Russian’.  The implication is that they have no agency of their own, that they don’t tap into real grievances about the legitimacy or policies of the authorities in Kiev and that they can therefore play no part in resolving the crisis.  The breakdowns of the ceasefire so far have been blamed on ‘pro-Russian separatists’ in Debaltsevo, while the Ukrainian army’s continued bombardment of Donetsk has been largely ignored, or the source of 'shelling' not specified.

This attitude is one of the biggest obstacles to brokering peace, or even a resilient ceasefire, in Ukraine.  The current government in Kiev has refused, for the most part, to talk directly to rebel leaders, relying instead on back-channels and intermediaries, like former president, Leonid Kuchma.  

It's an analysis which also encourages the assumption that President Putin has the authority or influence to bring fighting to a halt whenever the fancy takes him; a view which ignores the complicated relationship between Moscow and Novorossiya, as well as changes within the Novorossiyan leadership.

In the eyes of many of his so-called ‘proxies’, Putin has not done nearly enough to protect people in the Donbass from an aggressive, nationalistic Ukrainian army and there has been a 'Ukrainising' of leaders in Donetsk and Lugansk..
It’s impossible to gauge accurately from so far away whether opposition to the new Kiev government has hardened into genuine popular separatism across the region.  We do know that after President Yanukovych was forced to flee Kiev, demands from the east were relatively modest.  A degree of autonomy, formal recognition of the Russian language and, as conflict developed, an amnesty for fighters, would have satisfied most ordinary people from Donbass. 

Neither were anxieties about the legitimacy of the new authorities unfounded. 

The American Assistant Secretary of State, Victoria Nuland, explicitly stated that the US government spent $5 billion on encouraging ‘regime change’ in Kiev.  A leaked tape also revealed that she discussed the composition of the new Kiev government, before it was formed.    Quietly, the sequence of events which led to protests in Independence Square, or Maidan, turning violent has been revised, even by media in the UK.  It seems likely that snipers from Right Sector, the virulently nationalist group which provided the shock troops of the ‘revolution’, fired the first shots. 

The important point is that, to most of the world, it is not evident necessarily that the US and its allies have a unique right to subvert governments that they don’t like and work to replace them with something more amenable. 

The character of the new Kiev regime caused understandable distress in regions where there were cultural affinities with Russia and where Russian was spoken.  One of the first acts of the new Ukrainian parliament was to attempt to repeal a law allowing regions to designate Russian as a second regional language.  The president continues to insist that Ukraine is a ‘unitary state’, where Ukrainian is the only official tongue.  

Ukrainian neo-Nazis have been part of the government, from its inception, and are disproportionately influential in the armed forces, with nationalist militias accorded official status within the Ukraine's military.  The ‘social nationalist’, Andriy Parubiy, who led Right Sector violence at Maidan, became security chief in the new government and now leads a military unit.

There is a civil war in Donbass, caused by genuine grievances, anxieties and problems, among people who speak Russian and often have cultural affinities with Russia but who, for the most part, were happy to be part of Ukraine, until its democratically elected government was forcibly removed.  Continuing to ignore their existence and their concerns can only prolong the conflict. 

It is also unhelpful to demonise every country which does not support the US / EU view of geo-politics.  Washington and Brussels might see pouring billions of pounds into ‘civil society’ groups which are explicitly anti-Russian, in countries which have cultural, linguistic and historical links to Russia, as ‘democracy building’, but it’s hardly surprising, nor is it unreasonable, that Moscow doesn’t share that view. 

Sakwa argues very powerfully that Putin has reacted to events in the Ukraine, rather than orchestrating them.  He also believes that expansion of the European Union didn't worry Moscow unduly, until EU and Nato defence policy became inseparably entwined; a position which was formalised by the Lisbon Treaty.    

In these contexts, Russia’s decision to annex Crimea, opportunistically and at the request of its residents, was a rational act of self-defence.  Sevastopol is home of the Russian Black Sea fleet, the peninsula is inhabited, overwhelmingly, by Russians and losing it to Nato was unthinkable.

The pro-Russia argument is that Cold War attitudes in ‘the West’ have yet to be decommissioned, leading to the current conflict in the Ukraine.  Nato has expanded aggressively into former Soviet territory and now aspires to advance into historic Russian heartlands, right along the borders of the current Russian Federation and well within its sphere of cultural and linguistic influence.  It is an organisation aimed at surrounding and containing Russia and it poses a direct security threat to Moscow, as well as an existential threat to Russian speakers and Russian culture.

You don’t need to accept this theory to be uncomfortable with the West’s portrayal of Vladimir Putin as a modern-day Hitler, or to lament the media’s failure to explore both sides of the civil war in the Ukraine.  You don't need to accept that Moscow hasn't had a single member of personnel west of the border, to question whether the 'pro-Russia' forces are made up predominately of Russian soldiers.  Why are so many people, who have no particular knowledge of or even interest in the region, rushing to take Kiev's side?    

Bloodshed in a neighbour, common to both Russia and EU countries, is a shared responsibility.  It’s likely to be stopped only by a genuine spirit of partnership, between the US, Russia and the EU, encouraging compromise between the warring sides  It could become much worse with the introduction of new weapons, the continued abuse of silly historical analogies and politicians demonising either party to the conflict.