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Ukraine: Fear of war

  • March 3rd, 2014
  • Posted by EU Australia

Ukraine mapIn the course of one week the crisis in Ukraine worsened, with the overthrow of the President, and then, with the intervention of Russian troops, the fear of war. Lee Duffield writes.


The monthly monitor of the International Crisis Group gave a run-down on a turbulent and disturbing week in time:

“Scores were killed in Ukraine as anti-government protesters clashed with police in the worst violence since independence. After the opposition’s ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych on 22 February the new interim government was immediately confronted with challenges to its authority, concerns over the role of nationalist and rightist elements in government, an economic crisis and the threat of separatism in the east.

“Amid growing unrest in majority ethnic Russian Crimea, pro-Russian forces occupied government buildings and the two main airports, leading Kiev to accuse Russia of an armed invasion. Crimea’s pro-Russian government announced that it had taken control of all security forces and appealed to Russia to help ensure stability. Authorities in Kiev and Crimea urgently need to tone down rhetoric and all sides, including Russia, need to avoid provocative action to prevent further escalation.”


Ukraine Russians ukraine soldiersThe newly installed government in Kiev ordered a military call-up, though it was never expected to be able to repel a Russian invasion; it called for support from the European Union and United States – saying they were bound by security guarantees.

The Russian move into Crimea, act-first-and-don’t-talk-much,  with possibly more to follow, may have been enough to revive the anxieties of 2000 years for Europe, over pressure from the vast East. Some of the language from President Barack Obama in the United States hinted at a debate over civilized values. He appealed to Russian to act as a “modern country”, or face up to new economic pressure, and isolation in the world community.


His Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, did have some arguments, of a kind well-enough used in modern times, if hardly warranting full-scale invasion of states. He himself had the support of parliament for the military action; the deposed Ukrainian President, given sanctuary in Moscow, had some legitimacy as an elected leader; the Ukrainian protest movement that ousted him harboured a legion of extreme-nationalist right-wing thugs, much detested in former Soviet Russia (and in many places elsewhere); more explanations might be expected from Kiev, as to what manner of deals, alliances, desertions, abstentions or resignations produced its parliamentary majority for change, and as to the status of  demands being heard for ‘nationalist’ measures, like official constraints on the use of Russian language.


The key claim was a need to protect “Russian interests”. That argument might first be economic; Ukraine, until now, being bound to Russia in commerce and trade, and figuring in plans for an economic union in the ‘Russian’ sphere. (This would stagger against the evidence of the recent months that Ukrainians hope to exercise a sovereign right to integrate their economy with the West, a legitimate interest of their own).

A second reading of protecting Russian interests, is to protect “Russians” or “Russian speakers”, given that a large minority of Ukrainians, about 17%, are ethnic Russians, mostly concentrated in the East of the country closest to Mother Russia. It might be useful to declare them all actual Russian citizens, or more democratically offer them passports. These people, if in actual danger, might then be protected by Motherland troops, which would entail spreading the operation much further than the Crimean Peninsula, into the Eastern provinces.

Possibly the theory is a kind of latter-day anschluss idea based on race, a pale shadow of the Nazi German policy of defining the country by genetics and gathering all people of the national race within the national borders. “Russian speaking” is less viable still; it would take in millions of non-Russian Ukrainians, not so disposed to being so protected.

In the meantime the numbers argument might be a little stronger in the Crimea, an autonomous region of Ukraine, only ceded to that country by Russia in 1954. There, after some decades of ethnic cleansing under Soviet authority, ethnic Russians have an actual majority – about 58%, of just over two-million population. At the break-up of the Soviet Union, Ukraine entered into a contract for  Russia to keep its access to the sea, maintaining its lion’s share of the Black Sea fleet at naval bases in the region. Transit of troops  would be permitted,  hence the ease of this week’s move to occupy.


Budapest 1956 1Perish the thought that Europe might see any revival of the days of the tanks, an insecure Moscow regime prone to crude measures, jumping at any bid for autonomy in the ‘sphere of interest’: Soviet troops in East Berlin in 1953, the tanks in Budapest 1956, again in Prague 1968, thinking-about-it for Poland in 1980, a very uneasy memory evoked in the moment of change, 1989.

Some other parallels are pushing their way into contention, as with the invasion of a large sovereign state, Iraq, in 2003 by the United States and a set of allies. The political gangsters said to be targeted by the invasion that time were Islamist terrorists, though by general accord they actually built up in great strength there, after the move was made. There was, also, contestation around a declared justification for the action, in the form of joke intelligence “sexed up” with dissembling talk about the presence of weapons of mass destruction. Perhaps then, and now, with these invasions, certain kinds of political leaders for whatever reasons of their own, will just want to do it, and all the talk amounts to nothing much.


Whatever past invasions took place in other places, that was then, and not the Ukraine now. Hope must be, that reason will prevail. The good offices of outside parties are being sought, like the United Nations or the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). (The government of China, always sensitive about this matter of public protests challenging state authority,  is perhaps not so helpful as an outside party; it’s currently being listed in Moscow as a sympathiser with the cause.) Included in all the talk, Russian envoys have suggested the Ukraine should go back to the political agreement of 21.2.14, torn up in 24 hours and steeped in blood after the last street fight in Kiev. See EUAustralia Online:  Fracture, danger after Ukraine coup, 23.2.14; Ukraine agreement: bitter and begrudging peace, 22.2.14; Worsening conflict in Ukraine, 19.2.14.


Ukraine EU map Amid diplomatic pressure (including an interview for the Russian Ambassador in Canberra), work was beginning on the economic levers. Russia, while definitely holding strong cards on oil and gas supplies, would be susceptible to tightening of credit from overseas. The Rouble commenced to trade low against Western currencies today and Russian shares were down; bourses in America and Europe also starting to slide. Talk of sanctions extended to that most-hurtful of provisions for the nomenklatura (officers of rough-and-tough regimes and  their extended families) – a no-visas list for Western capitals. Leaders of the Group of Eight major economic powers have foreshadowed a boycott of the planned summit of the group in Russia this June – not a thrill like the Winter Olympics but a prestigious event for any modern head of state, in a Modern Country.

Ukraine if badly coveted by Russia must present mixed values as a prospective member of the European Union, its value in terms of land and resources – the land area by far greater than any existing EU member country – mainly attractive for the future. For now a problem zone for integration, it has a large population (45-million, 78% being the native Ukrainians; no small Greece to be sustained through a depression); no money; fractured over centuries of colonial domination, the German invasion of the 1940s, and 70 years as a hobbling Soviet economy; criminal gangs a  symbol and prominent export; fragile institutions shot through with corruption; and, dramatically clear this week, the extremely embarrassing question of its neighbours – one more border to share with Mother Russia.

Pictures, statistics – wikipedia,