10 June 2015

Ukraine’s troubled geography

S. Nihal Singh
Jun 10, 2015

Western support has led the rhetoric of Kiev to a stridently pro-Western and anti-Russian pitch... Yet a glance at the map of Ukraine and the adjoining Russian Federation will highlight the absurdity of these two countries living as enemies.

The crisis over Ukraine is worsening, but it is far from clear at this point whether it will lead to a Western rethink on integrating the country into its sphere of influence. The outcome of the two-day summit of Group of Seven (from which Russia was excluded for the second year) stuck to its familiar tough formulation. But in some academic circles in the United States and Europe, there is a growing trend that peace can only come if the West recognises the divided nature of Ukraine’s leanings. The country is greatly dependent on Russian goodwill, given the pro-Russian inclinations of roughly half its population in the East and its geographical location. Forcing Ukraine to sign on to a Western agenda does not make sense.

Whatever official statements emerging out of Moscow might suggest, President Vladimir Putin and any likely successor will not let the pro-Russian rebels fighting the Kiev forces in the East, where they have set up so-called People’s Republics, lose. Geopolitically, it is not only the President but the whole Kremlin power structure that rebels at the large territory adjoining the Russian Federation being co-opted by the West.

Western support from the European Union has led to raising the rhetoric of Kiev leaders led by President Petro Poroshenko to a stridently pro-Western and anti-Russian pitch. Billions of dollars of Western aid are being poured into Ukraine, with the West urging even more help. Yet a glance at the map of Ukraine and the adjoining Russian Federation will highlight the absurdity of these two countries living as enemies.

President Poroshenko was making his pitch on the eve of the Group of Seven industrialised countries’ summit. He spoke to President Barack Obama over the telephone resulting in a White House statement supporting Ukraine’s sovereignty and integrity, a boilerplate formulation. European Union sanctions are due to end by September.

Understandably, Western ambitions were fuelled by the inevitable chaotic days following the break-up of the Soviet Union and the resulting Boris Yeltsin era. Much of the eastern Europe was then co-opted into the West, including the Baltic states that were until recently part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Provocatively, they were not merely taken into the European Union but also the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato). Thanks to the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, the home of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, by Russia a year ago, the complexion of the crisis changed.

We are now living in an imitation Cold War atmosphere, with Western sanctions imposed on Russia and Nato forces and military aircraft deployed on Russia’s periphery. Meanwhile, we are in the middle of the second ceasefire agreement signed by Russia and Kiev in Minsk last February, supported by the West even as intermittent firing has spilled into more significant fighting between the rebels and Kiev forces.

President Poroshenko has shown no enthusiasm for a federal type of solution in which the regions would have greater autonomy, an idea that would satisfy Moscow inasmuch as it would give the eastern region more room to have closer relations with Russia. The Minsk agreement had envisaged local elections and greater regional autonomy.

There has been no forward movement on the political front, with President Poroshenko asserting that fighting must first stop and the border with Russia brought under full Kiev control. Encouraged by Western rhetoric, Kiev is standing for a strong Centre.

A report by observers of the monitoring team of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council, on June 5, posed two likely outcomes: either a return to a deepening intractable conflict or a new momentary upsurge. As an aside, President Poroshenko was realistic enough to tell a news conference that he saw no alternative to trying to carry out the Minsk agreement, probably not to sound too belligerent on the eve of the G7 summit.

How long a changing Western academic assessment of the true nature of the Ukraine crisis will take to translate into policies by the major Western powers remains a question mark. But a crucial factor will be Germany’s evolving attitude. As the most important leader of the European Union, Chancellor Angela Merkel sets the trend.

Having been brought up in the former Russian-controlled East Germany, she is a Russian speaker and knows Communist psychology well. On Ukraine Ms Merkel’s mood was soured by the downing of the Malaysian Airlines passenger plane by suspected Russian-supported rebels, through anti-aircraft batteries supplied by Moscow.

However, Ms Merkel is pragmatic enough to realise that peace with Russia is imperative for the future of the European continent. In her quieter moments, she must know that a Russia sought to be contained by the West through Nato and a ring of Western-aligned nations is a path to conflict, not peace.

True, President Putin is seeking to build his country’s influence through his own trade arrangements with nations that were until recently part of the Soviet Union. This is a legitimate aim for the Kremlin leader.

On the other hand, fears of Russia by the Baltic states in particular and other former parts of the Communist scheme of things are not to be derided. Georgia and Moldova, with Russia carving out regions in these states, are living examples of these fears. But surely the answer is not to provoke Moscow by appointing a former anti-Russian Georgian leader as governor of an eastern Ukrainian province by giving him Ukrainian nationality.

It is difficult to predict when cooler heads will prevail in the major Western capitals. Years after the Cold War was supposedly over, it seems ironical that European powers and the United States are playing the old game. The West, particularly the United States and Germany, must realise that they have to take the lead in abandoning policies that are retrogressive. It is counter-productive to humiliate a proud nation that broke up and is seeking to pick up the pieces again. For the immediate future, the outlook for peace will remain bleak.

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