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Ukraine batters a broken world

by Kevin Rafferty

Special To The Japan Times

Surely the prize for the most cynical news item of the month should go to the announcement from Oslo that Russian President Vladimir Putin has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize 2014. Admittedly the nomination was for his work in proposing how to get rid of Syria’s chemical weapons, but even that deal (which helped to rescue Barack Obama from a political hole) has come unstuck.

Events of the last few weeks in Ukraine have shown how fragile the state of the world is, how interdependent, and yet how badly served it is by leaders of the biggest countries. If there were a “Nobel Anti-Peace Prize,” Putin might win it, but it would be hard to separate him from so many leading contenders.

Give credit where it’s due. Putin and his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, were bare-faced in denying that Russia controlled the masked, heavily armed and well-drilled troops who seized control of Crimea. But by the test of identifying a duck (if it waddles like a duck, quacks like a duck and swims like a duck, it probably is one), these troops are Russians. Their appearance coincided with the arrival of tens of trucks carrying teams of commandos from Russia across the strait of Kerch. They took over key installations and effectively imprisoned Ukrainian troops on their own base. The plates on their vehicles are Russian.

Apologists for Putin claim that the U.S. and Obama have been guilty of worse atrocities against innocent civilians, and cite the “illegal war” against Iraq “now estimated to have killed 500,000 people,” the invasion of Afghanistan, regime change in Libya and the killing of thousands of civilians in drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.

“Western aggression and lawless killing is on another scale entirely from anything Russia appears to have contemplated, let alone carried out,” charged Seumas Milne in the British newspaper The Guardian. He also cited U.S. official Victoria Nuland and her infamous “F@ck the EU” leaked telephone call as evidence that the United States was orchestrating the overthrow of President Viktor Yanukovych.

But do thousands of wrongs make Putin’s actions right? And if we are checking bloodstained hands, how many civilians have died in the Syrian conflict because Putin blocked U.N. resolutions to take aid into besieged areas?

Putin and Obama are not alone in betraying dreams of peace. China has been busy denouncing Japan for its aggressive rewriting of history while announcing a 12.2 percent increase in military spending to 808 billion yuan or $132 billion. Even according to Beijing’s official figures, China’s spending has risen by more than five times in the past 10 years while Japan’s defense spending has remained flat. China’s official figures show defense spending of more than twice that of Japan, but U.S. and other analysts claim that Beijing underestimates true spending, which may be double the official numbers.

Elsewhere in Asia, North Korea stirred up concern by firing seven missiles into the sea from its east coast without giving prior warning. According to South Korea, a Chinese passenger aircraft passed through the rocket’s trajectory seven minutes later.

Japanese politicians, meanwhile, have been conducting a verbal war against the ugly facts of history, with plans to rewrite the books, without recognizing how self-defeating this is.

It may be stretching things to say that Ukraine is a Sarajevo moment, referring to the start of the First World War when anarchist Gavrilo Princip shot and killed Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife. Some reporters feared that such a dangerous impasse had been reached when unarmed Ukrainian soldiers faced the supposedly non-Russian soldiers on the airfield where they were supposed to work. Luckily the shot was fired in the air.

There are plenty of other flashpoints. On the ground in Ukraine, Putin has tightened the noose around the Crimea Peninsula leaving Western governments and analysts flailing their protests in his wake. Less than two weeks ago, analysts predicted that Russia would rattle sabers, but not take offensive action or put Russian boots onto Ukrainian territory. This, they pointed out, would be unlawful since it would infringe on the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, under which Ukraine surrendered its nuclear weapons, then the third-largest stockpile in the world, bigger than those of China, France and the U.K. combined. In return the U.S., Russia, United Kingdom and Ukraine itself promised to protect the territorial integrity of Ukraine.

So much for agreements: In the space of a week, Russian troops secured the main strategic points of the Crimea; the Russian navy blockaded Sevastopol port; pro-Russian supporters intimidated journalists; Russian sympathizers took over the parliament and decided to apply to join Russia, a motion that will be put to a referendum on March 16.

The result seems a foregone conclusion given the Russian activism, the fact that almost 60 percent of the 2 million people of Crimea are ethnic Russians and virtually all information is coming from Russia, not to speak of the all too obvious heavily armed persuaders on the streets.

Rustam Temirgaliev, the deputy prime minister of Crimea, certainly regards the referendum as a mere rubber stamp. All state property would be “nationalized,” the Russian ruble adopted and Ukrainian troops treated as occupiers and forced to surrender or leave, he said.

Experienced Western commentators have been days to weeks behind Putin’s audacity, with one suggesting that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe might be able to help — its unarmed observers have been denied entry to the Crimea by pro-Russian thugs.

The immediate question is whether Russia will be satisfied with annexing the Crimea. There are substantial minorities of ethnic Russians in the eastern part of the rest of the country who have been stimulated to protest, whether inspired by Moscow or by their own unhappiness about the new government in Kiev.

Moscow’s line is that Kiev’s new rulers are a junta who unlawfully seized power and toppled the corrupt but democratically elected Yanukovych. The Kiev government points out — too late — that the dead in Independence Square came from all communities, including Russian-speaking Crimeans, Armenians and Jews. Most Ukrainians do not want to split or to be on the front line of a new cold war.

The Ukraine government has a minefield to navigate, especially when Moscow refuses to talk directly to Kiev. Their strong fraternal ties date back to the ninth century and the founding of Kievan Rus, the first eastern Slavic state, whose capital was Kiev. Ukraine was part of Russia for centuries and, during the Soviet period, was two supposedly separate republics but with strong influence from the Kremlin, particularly since the Soviet (today Russian) Black Sea fleet is based at Sevastopol in Crimea. Crimea was handed over to Ukraine in 1954 by Nikita Khrushchev. Crimea supported Ukraine’s independence in 1991, but by a smaller majority than other regions.

Economically Ukraine is fragile, but it also plays an important role in Russia’s energy trade since 80 percent of the natural gas Russia sends to European markets goes through Ukraine. Ukraine itself is a major market for Russian gas, though at the moment its tanks are full, so there are months before Moscow can apply a successful squeeze through pricing.

Are the U.S. and EU with help from the International Monetary Fund prepared to pay the price of putting Ukraine on its economic feet? And can the government get its act together to modernize an economy where it is estimated that 50 oligarchs control 85 percent of output and corruption and mismanagement has long been rife?

We are talking of at least $15 billion in foreign money, dependent of course on meeting performance standards. But it will be hard to get the economy moving if there is unrest, whether fomented by internal rivalry or, as seems to be happening in parts of eastern Ukraine, by Moscow seeking further destabilization.

Beyond that is the issue of whether Putin gets away with his naked power play. Bashar Assad’s torture and murder of his own people and Iran’s defiance on nuclear issues are all boosted by Putin’s support. German Chancellor Angela Merkel claimed that Putin seemed to be “in another world.” But will German companies agree with her if they are deprived by sanctions of trade and investment opportunities in Russia?

Will the brave financiers of the City of London and real estate agents in Mayfair go along with losing the business of Russian oligarchs in support of British Prime Minister’s David Cameron’s hostility to Putin’s demarche?

For the semi-detached Obama and his growing isolationist congress and people it should be a lesson that in a globalizing world — as John Donne wrote centuries ago — any person’s death diminishes me.

What is at stake in Ukraine is principles of sovereignty and the future world order. China, Russia’s most reliable ally, according to Elizabeth Economy of the Council on Foreign Relations, has said a “soft ‘Nyet’ ” to Putin’s intervention in Ukraine, but must be happy that the U.S. has been rebuffed.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had been cozying up to Putin. Will he dare tell Russia to back off?

For the helpless United Nations, it is another nail in the coffin of a system where any of five victors of a former war can defy world opinion and humanity at will.

Kevin Rafferty is a professor at the Institute for Academic Initiatives at Osaka University.