When Push Comes to Shove

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Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

Ukraine has become the latest battleground for the play-off between the US and Russia as the world braces itself for a rerun of the Cold War. The fall of the Berlin wall in 1988, marking the defeat of communism worldwide, had led to unprecedented optimism and celebrations across Europe and America in the belief that with the end of the Cold War, the world would finally be at peace.

Yet, even after the Soviet Union’s break-up, the West was bent on cutting Russia down to size so that the latter could never threaten Europe again. As the only superpower, the US was keen to shape the world according to its ideas.

Much of the early optimism has since been belied. Wars have continued and Russia’s resurrection, with former Cold War warrior Vladimir Putin in control since 2000, has made the West uneasy.

Even before Putin came on the scene, the US and the EU had launched a relentless drive to box Russia into a corner with pro-western governments encircling the former superpower. NATO’s eastward expansion to former Soviet bloc nations unnerved Russia. Georgia and Ukraine were the natural targets for this. The pro-western sections in Ukraine are keen to be a part of this military alliance. Moscow’s antennae is up and Putin will do his best to ensure that NATO does not reach Russia’s doorstep. No State can be happy with a military bloc, of which it is not a member so close to its border.

The shadow-boxing between Russia and the West in Ukraine, with sabre-rattling on both sides, has to be understood in this context. If not controlled, this crisis would once again revive memories of the past. The international attention is now on diplomacy, but the latent threat of war with the US and the West intervening on the side of Kiev, as Moscow digs in its heels in Crimea, is always a possibility. The fallout from this will have repercussions in Syria, where some sort of rapproachment between the US and Russia had led to a tentative start at getting the peace process off the ground.

At the heart of the crisis of this strategic nation of 46 million is the tug of war between those sections of people in Ukraine who wish for closer integration with the EU, and the Russian-speaking majority of Crimea with historical, cultural, economic and political links with Moscow. The US and the EU have naturally supported the protesters, wishing to align with them. Putin has made his intentions of standing up to the US and its allies by rushing troops to Crimea. Sevastopol is also home to Russia’s Black Sea fleet and Moscow will do all it has to ensure that its strategic interests are protected in its backyard.

Crimea has been a part of Russia since it was conquered in the 18th century under Catherine the Great. It became a part of Ukraine in 1954 when former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev transferred it. As Ukraine was then part of the Soviet Union, the transfer was an internal arrangement. The move was a formality until 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed. Crimea found itself as part of an independent Ukraine. Ethnic Russians make up the majority of Crimea’s 2 million population. Retired Russian officers and their families have also settled here, having served in Sevastopol. Nearly 60 percent of the people are Russian speakers. So, it is quite natural for Moscow to want to defend its own interests.

The US and the rest of the world appear to have forgotten what happened in Grenada in 1983. The then US president, Ronald Reagan, sent forces to the island nation in the Caribbean to topple a communist regime on the flimsy pretext of saving American lives. There were just a few Americans in Grenada, who admitted that their lives were under no threat at any point of time. If a US president can do this, why can’t Putin do the same to protect Russian interests in Crimea?

US President Barak Obama has dubbed the Russian action in Crimea as a “violation of international law” and said that “Russia is on the wrong side of history.” The US has threatened economic sanctions and cancelled bilateral defence cooperation with Russia.

It all began on 21 November last year, when Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych suspended talks on a trade and political pact with the EU. The decision set alarm bells ringing in Washington and other western capitals. It meant an end to the EU’s western partnership pact, which would have integrated Ukraine both politically and economically to the West. This would have entailed sweeping reforms and stringent conditions laid down for reform by the International Monetary Fund. In the short term, there would be immense hardship for the people.

Yanukovych, already an unpopular leader with a debt-ridden economy ready to crumble, went back on the negotiations with the EU because Moscow offered a much sweeter deal. Russia was willing to advance around $20 billion, with the enticement of immediately disbursing $2 billion to the cash-trapped government. Moscow made it clear that the concessions now given in oil and gas prices would be scrapped. To counter the EU integration, Putin also pushed for a Russian- led Customs Union with Ukraine.

Actively encouraged by the EU governments, the pro-western forces in Ukraine were out in the streets demanding that Yanukovych sign the trade agreement with the EU. In the past three months, the movement has intensified and slowly built up to a crescendo with a section of the neo-Nazis taking over a genuine street protest in Kiev and igniting clashes. The attack on office buildings led to the authorities firing on protesters, killing at least 80 people. Subsequently, Yanukovych fled the capital. A makeshift interim government is in place for now.

One of the first acts of Parliament was to revive the demand for Ukraine to join NATO and abolish Russian as a recognised language in the country. “This really spooked the Russians as it would be a nightmare scenario to have NATO on its doorstep and let down the Russian-speaking people of the Crimea,” says Nandan Unnikrishnan, a well-known Russian expert from the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi. Unnikrishnan adds that Russia could live with Ukraine’s economic integration with the EU, but would fight tooth and nail to ensure that it does not join NATO .

All western governments sided with the unruly protesters, criticising Yanukovych for the crackdown. Obama spoke passionately about the atrocities committed by the authorities. Stephen F Cohen, an American expert who has written several books on Russia, has been sharply critical of the western response to the Ukraine crisis. He believes that the statements emanating from the US and western capitals have helped to encourage street protesters get violent. He asked if any US president would react if a mob was bent on marching to the US Senate, attacking government offices on the way.

The important thing now is to ensure that the situation is contained. Talks are the only way out. Economic sanctions, the US’ favourite tool, is unlikely to be endorsed by major EU powers. Germany, Italy and other nations are unwilling to take such action as the fragile economies cannot take the risk right now. Even Washington’s closest ally, the UK, hopes to insulate the City of London from the US sanctions as Russian money flows liberally into the country’s financial sector. Germany is pushing for a diplomatic solution after Putin indicated that Russia will not use force to annex Crimea.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov indicated to EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton that a 21 February deal hammered out by Yanukovych and the Opposition parties should be the basis for restoring stability to the region. The deal was for Ukraine to revert back to the 2004 Constitution ushered in after the Orange Revolution. It would limit the sweeping powers of the president and give Parliament more say on national issues. A national government with the Opposition would be in place and elections held between September and December.

letters@tehelka.com

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