22 Apr 2014

Ukraine: time for humble pie all round?

Maybe it’s time to step back from the Ukrainian crisis. It’s worth pointing out that ever since the fall of the Soviet Union a quarter of a century ago, the introduction of democracy has exposed the tensions between the roughly 14 per cent of the population that is ethnic Russian and the 76 per cent that are ethnic Ukrainians.

Every election saw ethnic Ukrainians winning in the west, and ethnic Russians in many parts of the east. The east represents much of the economic power of the country expressed in both coal and gas.

The mixed group of protesters gathered over time in Kiev’s centre. Many were democrats, some were neo-fascists. Over time the EU had been arranging a ‘memorandum of association. It was President Viktor Yanukovych’s  postponement of signing this document that raised temperatures in the protest movement and in February of this year forces – widely reported to have been police and paramilitary loyal to President Yanukovych – opened fire on protesters. Over a hundred people were killed and over fourteen hundred  were injured.

Mr Yanukovych was hurriedly impeached and fled the country. Whether this represented some kind of a coup is in dispute. But Russia views the government which then took power as illegitimate. Putin had lost his man in Mr Yanukovych; so had the ethnic Russians, who regarded him as the best bet for their own protection. In the aftermath of his departure the scale of his personal corruption revealed in his ransacked residences shocked many.

Ukraine’s ethnic Russian minority felt increasingly insecure. So too, it seems, did Russia itself when considering its vast strategic force resident in Crimea under long-standing treaties with Kiev.


So now  we are where we are, with ethnic Russians seizing Crimea, fast followed by Russia herself. Ethnic Russians have also seized a handful of government buildings in other centres where they are dominant. Crimea has long been strategically all but Russian – indeed for the vast majority of the last three centuries. Our best option is to negotiate a post facto acceptance of that fact in which the interests of ethnic Ukrainians who seek to stay in Crimea are protected.

Ukraine is inescapably a buffer state. There is no resolution to be had between east and west in the country. Global geo-politics render unacceptable the thought of  bringing about two separate states.

That leaves what? Whatever Ukraine’s long-term future it seems that both the EU/Nato organisations and the Russian government need to pause. It may well be that history will judge that the EU and Nato moved too fast in trying to embrace Ukraine. History may also judge that given the buffer nature of the state, the resolution to the crisis – which involves the near bankruptsy of Ukraine – lies in the hands of both Russia and the EU/Nato leaders.

Individual Obama/Putin, Kerry/Lavrov talks have failed to diffuse the problem. Almost certainly a much wider peace initiative will be required in which both power blocs step back. Russia is highly unlikely to move back from Crimea. In reality most accept that Crimea is likely to remain Russian, whatever happens – That the best that can be hoped for in Crimea will be some kind of enshrining of rights for the minority ethnic Ukrainians living there.

Putin remains on record as stating that he has no interest in the other ethnic Russian regions beyond the protection of the ethnic Russians living in them.

The EU/Nato powers need to be prepared to accept Ukraine for what it is – a buffer state – in which both powers have some interest. An agreement to keep all foreign forces out of the country could be one starting point. Another must reside in a major economic rescue package to which both the EU, the IMF and the Russian government should contribute.

I have heard no one asking for war over Ukraine and I know few people who think there will be one. That might be the starting point for a dialogue in which the opening dish might be a substantial helping of humble pie.

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