The emerging Ukraine crisis The West must accommodate Russia S. Nihal Singh

THE contours of the Crimean crisis are becoming clearer with all the huffing and puffing from the West and Russia’s effort to soften western reprisals while strengthening its grip on the peninsula. At the heart of the crisis is the western overreach in seeking to bottle Moscow geopolitically by taking its only remaining buffer state Ukraine, a landmass of 45 million people, into the European Union and NATO fold.

A definitive history of the reunification of the two Germanies and the disintegration of the Soviet Union remains to be written. But the trail of broken promises made to Moscow over Germany and the post-Soviet era remains to be written but they are an open book. Taking advantage of Russian weaknesses, Washington and its capitals chose expediency over keeping promises by taking NATO to the very edge of Russia. And Boris Yeltsin played his part perfectly by being part jester, part folk hero, to let the West get its way.

That the West sought to complete the jigsaw puzzle by taking in the last Russia-friendly country standing on its periphery was strongly resisted by a determined leader at the helm, Vladimir Putin. However much the West might demonise him, he is plainly fighting for his country’s vital interests in the face of mounting western economic and diplomatic threats. If Russia were to lose Ukraine to the European Union and NATO, it would be relegated to the ranks of second rate powers.

It is clear that Moscow will not let go its effective control over the Crimean peninsula, the home of its Black Sea fleet and the majority of whose population being ethnic Russians and Russian speakers. What remains to be determined is the form of constitutional structure it should have, whether it would formally remain in Ukraine while enjoying wide autonomy amounting to virtual independence or be annexed by the Russian Federation. Ironically, Ukraine was gifted to Ukraine by Nikita Khrushchev in 1954 in the days of the old Soviet Union.

Ukraine is very much the heart of Russia in its customs, traditions, religion and language. It is broadly divided between the western portion, more western-oriented and the eastern and southern portions of primary Russian-speakers and Moscow-oriented. To some extent, these lines are getting blurred with a younger generation more inclined to the bright lights of the West, but the broad division still holds.

What began as a revolt against President Viktor Yanukovyich’s last-minute refusal to sign a wide-ranging trade agreement with the European Union as the first stage of its orientation to the West with months of protests on Kiev’s main square eventually turned into turned into a violent slug fest. Many protesters were killed. It is not quite clear who the sharp shooters were, some reporters suggesting that it was the work of men allied with the opposition. The foreign ministers of France, Germany and Poland with Russian presence succeeded in agreeing to a compromise calling for early presidential election, but almost immediately opposition mobs took over, with Yanukovych in flight and a provisional Parliament voting in a new interim leadership.

With such skullduggery dressed as a revolution, President Putin realised the stakes involved, and went about systematically seeking control over Crimea, with boots on the ground, and the required diplomatic and constitutional manoeuvres to meet all eventualities. The West can cry blue murder, but must recognize that it has been checkmated in a game it was playing at Russia’s expense to assert its dominance in the region.

In a sense, the crisis over Ukraine brought back memories of the Cold War, supposedly buried many years ago. The West is signalling that realpolitik is very much the name of the game in international diplomacy and promises are worthless if opportunistic victories can be won. Significantly, the rhetoric emanating from the United States and European capitals is very different. In Europe there are divisions between the new democracies such as Poland and Germany. Europe has considerable trade with Russia and is heavily dependent upon Russian gas.

President Putin has demonstrated that he has the toughness and command of his country’s main levers of power to challenge the western effort to drive the last nail in the coffin of Russia as a great power. Protecting his country’s vital interests in Crimea and the future of its Black Sea fleet is an imperative. How the subsequent problems of Ukraine are resolved can only follow the reversing of western adventurism. President Putin has drawn a very clear red line.

The provisional Ukrainian government started on the wrong foot by abrogating the official status of the Russian language and filling key security posts with men with a history of extreme right views. Mercifully, the provisional President has not signed the new language decree into law but the harm has been done by the signal it sent out to the majority Russian speakers in the eastern region. Apart from Crimea, there have been many pro-Russian demonstrators in major eastern towns in the country. Needless to say, there are no representatives of the east and south in the provisional government in Kiev.

Unsurprisingly, Chancellor Angela Markel of Germany has emerged as a key player in a diplomatic resolution of the crisis. Her country’s trade interests are considerable, and as a former inhabitant of Communist East Germany and a Russian speaker, she understands the Russian psyche. Besides, Berlin is very much in the process of taking its rightful place in the comity of nations, having achieved the virtual status of being a permanent status of the UN Security Council in the 5+1 formula even as countries such as India, Japan and Brazil see no prospect of such status for many years.

Any diplomatic settlement must recognise that Russia’s vital geostrategic interests. Given its geography and traditional attachments, Ukraine is very vulnerable to Russian pressure. By his actions, President Putin has demonstrated that he will not let the West hijack his country’s interests after the diplomatic gains the West was able to achieve by breaking its promises in the past. Opportunism, rather than principles, still calls the shots in world affairs.


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