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The Failures of Cold War Attitudes in the Handling of the Ukrainian Crisis

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The ceasefire agreement signed on September 5th is more maintained by a stalemate between Pro-Russian militias and Ukrainian security forces than by combatants actually obeying the truce. Largely due to the influx of Russian arms, armor, and troops, Pro-Russian forces have halted the Ukrainian advance. The Ukrainian forces have switched to defensive positions, columns of Russian tanks and APVs continue to move throughout the rebellious territory, and supplies for rebels reportedly flood through the uncontrolled border. Although such an obvious effect barely deserves mention, those who bear the main brunt of the War in Donbass are civilians; shelling continues to kill civilians and damage key infrastructure in Mariupol, Donetsk, and Luhansk. Despite the additional measures passed following its most recent summit in Wales, NATO can look upon the situation in Eastern Ukraine and say that it has lost. Petro Poroshenko, the Ukrainian president, has accepted a peace deal proposed by Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, that leaves the Donbass under the administration of Novorossiya, amounting to de facto Russian control. Russia still controls of Crimea and Sevastopol, amidst reports of human rights abuses against the Tatar community there. All of the goals of Western intervention in Ukraine have been lost: Civilian casualties remain high in the East, valuable infrastructure has been destroyed in Ukrainian’s most industrialized region, Ukraine remains corrupt and oligarchical, and Ukrainian sovereignty continues to be violated in both the Crimean peninsula and the Donbass. Mr. Putin’s goals in Ukraine have been accomplished, as the country is destabilized, Crimean and Sevastopol remain Russian possessions, and they control the Donbass through a combination of direct military force and a supplicant rebel administration. Looking back, NATO and the West can learn from its own mistakes that led to Mr. Putin’s strategic victory in Ukraine.

The primary lesson that the West — a term I use to refer primarily to the NATO-led power bloc based around the US, the Commonwealth of Nations, and the EU — can learn from its failure in Ukraine is that keeping up appearances matters. Despite frequent military aggressions against Ukraine, Russia has managed to preserve much of the moral highground due not to the ethics of Russian actions, but the brutal real politik actions of the West in Ukraine. From the beginning of the Ukrainian Conflict, the West has recognized the predatory intentions of Russia mimicking the Russian annexation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008. Knowing this, however, the West has maneuvered to avoid Russian aggression at every turn, disregarding the veneer of acceptability that Mr. Putin managed to place on all Russian actions. Let us recapitulate the series of events leading to the present situation in Ukraine.

On November 21st 2013, the contemporary President of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, suspended an association agreement between Ukraine and the EU, the first step in the long process to EU membership. This synched the perception of Mr. Yanukovych’s government as a corrupt, slavish extension of Mr. Putin’s power and led to massive protests in Western Ukraine where his Party of Regions had performed poorly. The West supported these protests as a continuation of the anti-corruption movement that brought Mr. Yanukovych into power during the Orange Revolution, whereas Russia strongly condemned the protests as disruptive. Protests continued, becoming increasingly violent, until 23 February 2014, when Mr. Yanukovych fled into Russia leaving Ukraine in the hands of Arseniy Yatsenyuk, Oleksandr Turchynov, and Yulia Tymoshenko. Unfortunately for Ukraine, these politicians are just as much corrupt oligarchs as Mr. Yanukovych, albeit more aligned with the West than Russia. In addition to the standard political corruption to be expected from Ukrainian politicians, the current Ukrainian government contains a coalition of parties ranging from the anti-corruption populists that the West would love to support, to cronyist deserters from the Party of Regions, to a large minority of fascists in both the Svodoba [Freedom] and Batkivshchyna [Fatherland] parties. Russia loudly condemned this revolution for the undemocratic transition of power it was, and demanded that Mr. Yanukovych be returned to power at least until Presidential elections. Unfortunately the West refused to listen to such sound advice, and congratulated the rebels, recognizing the legitimacy of the acting Ukrainian government despite a lack of democratic support. Although Russia had an obvious motive to maintain the pro-Russian Mr. Yanukovych in power, the fact the West acted to oppose Russian interests rather than uphold democratic values destroys the credibility of Western institutions, powers, and directly undermines the supposed goals that the West stands for. Without the West acting as an impartial arbiter in world crises, other countries may step in and dictate the moral argument — in this case Russia. As a citizen of both Canada and the United States, I am ashamed at the sectarian actions of the West in Ukraine and saddened to see the forces of democracy, human rights, and progressivism fail a country begging for their intervention.

The next saga in the Ukrainian crisis begins on February 23 2014, when thousands of ethnic Russians in Sevastopol began to mobilize in opposition to the new Ukrainian government which they felt was undemocratic, disregarded their support for Mr, Yanukovych, and contain fascist elements dangerous to ethnic Russians. These “self-defense” militias found support among supports of the Party of Regions through-out the Crimean peninsula, but by February 26th, the numbers and equipment of the militias had begun to swell suspiciously. Later it was revealed that within 3 days of the original protests in Sevastopol, unmarked Russian troops had been deployed in Crimea, they reached the provincial capital of Simferopol on the 27th and evicted the revolutionary elements of the regional government. Interestingly, despite the enormous Russian presence in Crimea, the initial militarization and many actions were entirely Ukrainian. On the 26th, the Berkut, a national police force loyal to Mr. Yanukovych, seized key checkpoints on the Crimean peninsula, and turned itself over to the commands given from Simferopol. Additionally, it was Pro-Russian protestors who raised the Russian flag in Simferopol, Kurch, and Sevastopol, not Russian troops. Mr. Yanukovych requested from exile in Russia that foreign military forces be used to return Ukraine to a state of law and order. The West condemned Russia’s militarization in the Crimean peninsula, and denounced Mr. Yanukovych as illegitimate. In doing so, the West again acting in opposition to Russian interests — which were the military annexation of a sovereign nation, not a terrible thing to oppose — rather than recognizing that Ukraine actually was run by undemocratic revolutionaries acting against the wishes of the legitimate government. Despite the ill-will behind Russian intentions, an intervention was technically legal and would have proceeded without conflict if the West had supported democracy and worked with Russia and the UN to create an international effort to address Mr. Yanukovych’s concerns. Nothing would have both maintained the West’s reputation and befuddled Russia more than working alongside Mr. Putin as an ally in peace. Meanwhile the pro-Russian elements of the governments of Sevastopol and Crimea announced that a referendum would be held on March 15th to determine whether they would join the Russian Federation or remain a part of Ukraine. With the details of coercion and vote-rigging unconfirmed, due to an aforementioned lack of international observers, a majority of Crimea and Sevastopol voted for incorporation within the Russian Federation, an offer accepted by a gleeful Russia. Again the West took the adversarial path, refusing to send official observers and condemning the vote as illegitimate. Considering the Western support for Kosovan independence from Serbia, the Western opposition to the fundamental right to self-determination of a people — as guaranteed by the UN Charter — is clear sectarian opposition to Russia. By ignoring the Crimean vote and selectively applying a supposedly fundamental right the West has been made to look like a hypocrite, another blow to the moral highground the West seeks to maintain. By acting in a hypocritical and sectarian manner, the West has accomplished the premier Russian goal, this crisis has lowered the West in the eyes of the world, showing that the supposedly idealistic and democratic global police are as imperialistic, partisan, and opportunistic as any other world power. I personally do not believe that this is true, I know that the West opposes Mr. Putin in the fashion that it has because it knows that only destruction, suffering, and authoritarianism can come from Russian intervention, but I must still condemn Western actions as cheap and shortsighted in a moral struggle against Russia.

The final segment of the Ukrainian Crisis began in the March of 2014, when protests in solidarity with Crimea and Sevastopol in opposition to the revolutionary government in Kiev erupted in cities through-out South and East Ukraine. The protestors demanded a variety of things, mainly asking for a return to democratic rule under Mr. Yanukovych and expressing fear that the fascist elements of the revolutionary government would begin restricting their cultural and linguistic rights. In cities such as Kharkiv and Odessa, the protests either died down as the new scenario became normal, or in the case of Luhansk and Donetsk began a conflict with the revolutionary government. Some regional and local governments in the Luhansk and Donetsk began making decisions outside of their jurisdiction, such as raising Russian to a position as a co-official language, and protests became more common around those buildings in Donetsk and Luhansk that supported the revolutionary government. Clashes in the streets became commonplace by the second week of March between Pro-Russian protestors and the rump of Ukrainian security forces that supported the revolutionary government. As the Ukrainian forces began a crackdown on protestors, the Pro-Russian movement radicalized, becoming more violent and adopting new aims for an independent Russian republic in the Donbass. Over the course of March, Pro-Russian militias managed to seize control of the remaining government buildings in Donetsk and Luhansk, and elected their own politicians as the Presidents of the new Republics of Donetsk and Lugansk. Around this time busloads of Russian citizens, and perhaps some unmarked Russian soldiers, crossed into Ukraine to assist the Pro-Russian militias in extending their control to the surrounding countryside. On April 6th 2014, the official War in Donbass began as Pro-Russian militias from the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk attacked Ukrainian security forces in Sloviansk, leading to a concerted government effort against the Pro-Russian militias. At this point the leadership of both civilian governments and militias had been permeated to some extent by Russian nationals, leading to the de facto Russian control over the Pro-Russian areas. With the full support of the West, the revolutionary government began a brutal “anti-terrorist” campaign against the Pro-Russian militias on April 13th. Due in a large part to the inexperience of Ukrainian conscripts, the anti-terrorist campaign against the Pro-Russian forces — which decided to become the Federal State of Novorossiya on May 24th — depended almost entirely on siege tactics and bombardment. The indiscriminate shelling of civilian and industrial infrastructure in the effort to conquer Novorossiya has left thousands of civilians injured and hundreds of thousands internally displaced, with few concrete efforts to repair the damage. The revolutionary government has shown little sympathy for those Ukrainians injured in the fighting, denouncing them as rebellious scum and letting the fascist elements of the government voice a strong opinion against reconciliation with those innocents living in Novorossiya. The West’s support for such a brutal campaign with massive civilian casualties again damages its international reputation and leaves its actions open for comparison to Western support for brutal dictatorships during the Cold War. Russia has obviously done wrong in Ukraine: sending over hundreds of Russian troops to covertly assist Novorossiyan fighters, moving tanks into the outskirts of Mariupol to force Ukrainian retreat, and funding a conflict it knows to be destructive and pointless, however resorting to the same oppositional policies used in the Cold War will only damage the West’s position in the world and inflict unnecessary hardship upon the Ukrainian people. Seemingly happy to support a bad ally (I personally believe that an illegitimate revolutionary government containing fascist elements is a bad alliance choice), the West has been forced into accepting a peace deal created by Mr. Putin — who claims to have no part in the crisis despite evidence to the contrary. As mortar fire pummels homes in Mariupol and Donetsk and the Donbass becomes a frozen conflict zone, the West must reflect on its actions and realize the many moral and strategic loses in has endured due to a consistent dependence on an adversarial and overly pragmatic mindset. Although the West may be doing the wrong things for the right reasons, only when it begins to act like the beacon of idealism it pretends to be will crises begin to resolve instead of fester.

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Author: Sam

I study international relations and public policy at the University of Edinburgh. My research is focused on political systems and economic development in Post-Soviet states.

One thought on “The Failures of Cold War Attitudes in the Handling of the Ukrainian Crisis

  1. Remarkably well thought out and articulated. Yes, how the Russians needs to expand and dominate. I cannot add anything, bravo.
    Yes, the West stands by as it almost always has, content -if not pleased – to see its nemesis involved in internecine blood-letting, weakening itself and overriding our need to take a moral stance. Roughly one hundred million Europeans were killed in the 20th century, a disproportionate number of those in the Pale of Settlement – the piece of earth you write of. The Enemy At His Pleasure by Ansky is an excellent source and catalog of one aspect of the barbarism that runs through generations of those whose fate it is to be born in Ukraine, Poland, Belorussia and Lithuania, from the Baltic to Odessa and the Crimea. As one commentator put it – ‘these people do not need a reason to kill – it is in their blood;” that is, in generations of stories of cruelty, and generations of the impact upon families of numbed and vengeful grandfathers and fathers eager to pick up a weapon and avenge. Of course, I speak only of an individual and inter-generational psychological piece of this vast puzzle. Your political analysis is very impressive and your prose – as I’m sure you know – remarkable.

    Like

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