17 Mar 2014

Time to see the world through Russian eyes?

The vote is done. Crimean matters have come to a head. But how did we get into the mess, which now has ‘the west’ scurrying around looking for reprisals against Russia?

It’s easy to dismiss it all as Putin’s fault – but is it?


Might it not be more profitable, before doing anything else, to try to work out where we all went so wrong? Did the EU and NATO ever try to look at Ukraine from a Russian perspective? What is Russia’s problem?

In a quarter of a century, the Russian empire has lost Yugoslavia, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Georgia, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. There is a new NATO/Russia frontier.

Did the EU and NATO even talk too soon of bringing Ukraine into the European Union’s family of nations?

Cold comfort

I count myself as one of those who only had the vaguest awareness of the strategic importance to Moscow of Crimea. In fact if you’d pressed me, I might have even have guessed it was anyway Russian.

How many knew that there were 25,000 Russian troops permanently stationed in Crimea, by agreement? Knew the Russian fleet was there, by agreement? So in short, once you know how vital these facilities are to Russian security in the Black Sea and beyond, you begin to see how ‘change’ in Ukraine sets up deeply uncomfortable emotions in both the Kremlin and further afield.

There is very little evidence that EU or American diplomats consulted with Moscow about what was happening in Ukraine. Yet it has been evolving for several years and more.

Not only is Europe highly dependent upon Russian gas and financial investment, but Moscow also shares many of the same concerns that Europe and America have over the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and the spread of jihadism.

Common goals

In the aftermath of what is perceived to have been grotesque Russian violations of international law, bullying and worse, it is perhaps easy to revert to cold war thinking.

But given global military and diplomatic failures in Syria, Iraq Libya, Yemen, and beyond, perhaps we have higher priorities than name-calling the Russians.

Maybe Obama and Putin have more in common even than Reagan and Gorbachev. The latter negotiated the end of the cold war. The former need to talk candidly about what threatens all of us.

Creative thinking

When have we ever heard creative thinking about how to reduce Russian dependence upon Syria? Russia’s only base beyond Crimea outside its own landmass is Tartus, on the Syrian coast.

120 miles due west of Tartus, the UK still possesses the vastly expensive Akrotiri base on the eastern tip of Cyprus. Akrotiri is some fifty square miles in area and houses some 3,000 troops and thousands more ancillary staff and dependents.

We have another base, Dhekelia, in the south of the island. Amid the drastic need to find defence cuts, Akrotiri cries out to be looked at. Why not transfer the intelligence and communications functions to Dhekelia, and lease Akrotiri to the Russians? Moscow already owns most of the island’s banks and some one million Russians visit Cyprus every year.

The idea gives much needed cash back to the UK treasury and cuts defence expenditure handsomely.

These are long-term strategic considerations. But in immediate terms, they might provide the basis for negotiations about the many points of difference with Moscow, before firing any shots, or even sanctions, in anger.

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