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Ukraine crisis: Is the West trying to upset the Russians?
This is not the Cold War. Ukraine should not be
forced to take sides, but the EU and US are behaving provocatively on
A welter of bluster, bluff and bogus arguments has been thrown up in
the face of what is undoubtedly the most perilous crisis in East-West
relations since the end of the Cold War. The violence between pro and
anti-Russian Ukrainians yesterday will only increase the temptation for
President Vladimir Putin to move troops from Crimea into eastern
Ukraine. The West has boxed itself into responding with sanctions
against the Moscow elite which look set to escalate. Talks ended on
Friday with "no common vision".
Disturbingly, the Pentagon has its
aircraft-carrier battle group in the Mediterranean while the Kremlin
has moved a column of army trucks into Crimea. We feel on a conveyor to
As usual, the West is claiming the moral high
ground. The talk is of democracy and sovereignty. A swaggering Putin is
portrayed as a menacing bully who seeks to cloud the issue with
preposterous propaganda to persuade Russian speakers – at home, in
Ukraine and in Crimea – that they are under threat from neo-Nazi
Putin is certainly an unpleasant and
ruthless man, but this debacle was triggered by misguided policies in
the West. Last year, the EU offered a free-trade deal to Ukraine. It was
part of a long-term strategy to entice the former Soviet satellite into
the Western orbit, into Europe's economy and eventually into Nato.
doing so, the EU was poking a stick at a sleeping bear. The hapless
Ukrainians – who in 1994 gave up the third largest strategic nuclear
arsenal in the world, bigger than those of Britain, France, and China
combined – have found themselves pawns in a geopolitical game of chess.
They swapped weapons for guarantees of protection by the world powers –
which have proved worthless, as Iran and North Korea will note.
Russians and the West today offer high-minded arguments about
self-determination and protection of minorities. But definitions differ
conveniently. And principles slip in and out of parallel. Compare and
contrast the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan or the US war in Iraq – or
Russian tanks in Chechnya and Western air strikes on Libya, the Nato
bombing in Kosovo or Russia's shelling of Georgia, or the actions of
both sides in the current quagmire of Syria – and the only common factor
is the naked exercise of power where the interests of great nations are
Over the past decade, Russia has stood by as the West has wooed her
neighbours one by one into Nato, a strategic military alliance founded
to confront and contain Moscow decades ago. Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania,
Poland, Romania and Bulgaria are all now in Nato. Ukraine was the last
But Ukraine is not just another neighbour. Its capital Kiev
was the "mother of Rus cities" in the ninth century and the cradle of
Russian Orthodox Christianity. Crimea has an even more particular
patrimony. It was captured from the Tatars by Catherine the Great in
1783 and was part of Russia until, on a whim in 1954, it was given to
Ukraine by President Khrushchev.
Moscow views attempts to seduce
Ukraine from its sphere of influence much as the US might view a
pro-Russian government in Mexico – or the installation of enemy missiles
on a nearby island, like Cuba. Last month's coup in Kiev, said one
Russian parliamentarian, "masterminded mostly by the Americans" was "an
All this, to the Kremlin, violates its tacit
understanding with Washington that, in return for supporting the US
after 9/11, America would recognise Moscow's "sphere of privileged
interests" in the post-Soviet space. Crimea houses Russia's only
warm-water naval base. The Kremlin sees US support for anti-Russian
factions in Ukraine as betrayal. Might it next support dissident
protesters in Moscow?
Hawks in the West may see in that an
opportunity. But it would be a hazardous tactic of triumphalism. If the
West continues to take a hard line on Ukraine, it will perpetuate the
loopy logic that created the crisis in the first place.
would be a lose-lose situation. It will undermine the chances of
East-West co-operation on Iran, Syria, Afghanistan, and China. It will
be problematic for gas supplies to Western Europe. And it will retard
the development of a Russian economy which depends on oil and gas for 70
per cent of its exports and whose manufacturing sector remains
profoundly inefficient and uncompetitive.
What the US and EU
should be doing is looking for a win-win outcome which allows Ukraine to
act as both a buffer and a bridge between Russia and Europe.
should not be made to choose between East and West. Its natural
strength is that it faces both ways. Like Georgia, it should be kept out
of Nato to allay Russian fears of creeping Western military hegemony.
But its economy should be westernised, much as Poland's has been, to
shed the legacy of its Soviet past, an inflexible education system,
antiquated agriculture, and a corrupt political culture which indulges
the population with unecological energy subsidies. Increasing exports to
the West would boost the economy so that Ukraine becomes a conduit for
closer mutually beneficial integration between the Russian and Europe
But to achieve that the US and Europe – as well as Moscow – must have the courage to consign their Cold War mindset to the past.
Paul Vallely is visiting professor in public ethics at the University of Chester