By Mark Almond On the Ukrainian Crisis.
'Maybe Ukraine is as foreign to the British people today as it was when an obscure
crisis on its southern coast in Queen Victoria’s reign became the
Crimean War.But not since the 1850s has this country come so close to
colliding with Russia.Ukraine sits on the fault line dividing Eastern
Europe between pro-Western and pro-Russian views.
Her people are split
over attitudes to the old imperial capital, Moscow. That divide is now
opening up as pro-Russian districts in the East such as Kharkov and
Crimea refuse to accept the overthrow of President Viktor Yanukovych
celebrated in Kiev.
Civil war would be a tragedy for Ukraine’s
people. But what makes the crisis so dangerous is the international
dimension.Since the collapse of Communism in 1991, the US and its
European allies have seen keeping Ukraine independent of Russia as a key
result of victory in the Cold War.
For Russians, losing Ukraine was
a huge blow. Ironically, Russian culture and its Orthodox Church were
born in Kiev 1,000 years ago.Moscow is a new capital. The
Kremlin has always regarded bases in Ukraine, like its naval hub at
Sevastopol, as key to security.
Now Russia’s military presence could
be questioned by the revolutionaries swarming through the abandoned
government buildings in Kiev.Nato has never wanted Russia’s forces in
the Crimea, but nor does Washington want to see any violent effort to
force them out.
Bill Clinton famously declared that keeping Crimea in
Ukraine and away from Russia was in America’s national interest. But he
hoped that over time Russia would accept an independent Ukraine and
withdraw its fleet.
Today, when ethnic Russians are rallying in Crimea
and other parts of Eastern Ukraine, the risk of a clash between radicals
on both sides is rising. IF Ukrainian nationalists, for instance, shoot
at Russian soldiers in the south, local civil disorder could drag the
Kremlin in as it did five years ago across the Black Sea in Georgia.
Already the West has been sparring with Putin’s Russia over everything
from energy prices to gay rights, but a good old-fashioned tug of war
over territory is now under way.This crisis began when Yanukovych backed
out of a deal to associate his country with the EU last November. Putin
saw this as a back door to getting Ukraine into Nato and turning a
neutral neighbour into a US ally.
Pro-Western Ukrainians hoped that
would be the case, confirming the Kremlin’s worst fears. Given Ukraine’s
desperate economic mess, meeting the EU’s requirements was not really
Worse still, Kiev needed billions of dollars to
service its huge debt to Western banks. But the West wasn’t willing, or
able, to lend any more.
Putin’s huge oil and gas revenues seemed to
give Russia the trump card. The Kremlin offered Ukraine a soft loan but
on condition it stopped associating with the EU. This was a red rag to
the pro-Western Ukrainians.
But what complicates matters and
makes them so dangerous now is that the most militant pro-Western
protesters are violently anti-Russian.
Many Ukrainians want to join
the EU and Nato – not for reconciliation but to recruit allies against
their old enemy.This combination of a looming Ukrainian default
threatening West European banks and a potential conflict with the EU’s
major energy supplier, Russia, means that Ukraine’s troubles are not
only on our doorstep but threatening to flow across it.
violence in Kiev and inflammatory rhetoric of the hard core of the
Ukrainian demonstrators now met by pro-Russian groups in the East shows
that no one has things under control.Putin had hoped to manipulate
events through backing the ousted president, but the West has a problem
with its vocal supporters too. The paramilitaries who toppled Yanukovych
pay lip-service to the new European values of integration but they mask
loyalty to the older European demons of nationalism and anti-Semitism.
Sadly, Ukraine’s peaceful protesters are being marginalised by the
reality that in a revolution, political power grows out of the barrel of
a gun.When Klitschko tried to persuade them to accept the EU-brokered
compromise deal, he was booed off the stage in Kiev.
The West might have
hopes that the release of ex-prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko will
restore her status as the people’s darling that she enjoyed during the
Orange Revolution a decade ago. Her dramatic re-appearance in a
wheelchair in front of the crowds fresh from prison recalled her
firebrand role back then. She lashed Yanukovich’s record but also tried
to reach out to Ukrainians who feel that the heroes of 2004 wasted their
opportunity then. Timoshenko’s apology for the political class’s poor
performance since then might gain her support.
But it was
painfully obvious that none of her potential rivals for the presidency
from the opposition were on the platform with her.Worse still her former
ally, Viktor Yushchenko who defeated Yanukovich in 2005, is now a
bitter enemy. After all, he was the star witness against her at her
trial in 2011. Uniting the opposition will be a tricky task.
capacity of Ukrainians to flout their Western well-wishers was shown
when the protesters ignored that EU-sponsored deal to seize control of
Kiev.The radicals might ignore the West, but the West cannot ignore
the consequences of letting them run riot into a conflict with local
Russians or the Kremlin itself.
If political and economic
chaos leads to civil war in the country lying between Nato and Russia,
Yugoslavia’s break-up would seem like a vicarage tea party.But as
disaster looms, there is a glimmer of hope. Russia and the West have a
common interest in avoiding a geo-political fight.
Both Moscow and
Washington should make it clear they will not tolerate either side
causing more violence. Nor will they stand by their self-proclaimed
friends if they do.Otherwise, East and West could find themselves
dragged on to the slippery slope of confrontation for causes that are
not their own'