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West unable to concede Russia’s point on Ukraine

by Gregory Clark

It’s hard to understand the rationale for the Western, and Japanese, sanctions against Russia over Ukraine. Moscow says it wants a federal system of government giving more power to semi-autonomous regional units. And many in the West say they would support something similar. Even Kiev sees it as one acceptable outcome of the constitutional referendum it plans for May 25. So why the sanctions and all the heavy breathing?

The best answer we can get from Washington is that while it supports decentralization, it opposes too much power being given to the regions since this will favor Moscow in the traditionally pro-Russia east of the nation. So the Western objection is simply over the hypothetical degree of an autonomy to be decided in the future? And for that reason, we have troops being rushed into Poland, Cold War warriors are being unleashed, and sanctions imposed?

True, there are also objections to Moscow running military exercises along the east Ukraine border. But that is something the U.S. does along the North Korean border every year. The only other possible objection is over Crimea. But while many were unhappy about its separation into Russia, is anyone asking for that to be reversed?

The real complaint, it seems, is the claim that Moscow is behind the takeovers of east Ukraine government offices and towns by pro-Russian elements, and could plan a Crimea-like takeover of the area. But this too is hypothetical, and the evidence provided so far has been highly dodgy, including the usual doctored photos dragged out for these occasions. It is also highly illogical.

The last thing Moscow needs is a division of Ukraine into east and west. It would leave a backward minority in the east dependent on Russia for economic recovery, and a strongly anti-Russian majority in the west determined to point a pro-EU, pro-NATO dagger directly into Russia’s underbelly.

The ideal for Moscow is an intact Ukraine, but with the pro-Russian regions able to prevent anti-Moscow moves by Kiev. In other words, neutralization on the Finland model. Is that really so sinister and outrageous?

Ironically the origin of the current disputes was something very un-sinister. It was the naive Soviet illusion that under communism all peoples would come to love each other. Druzhba narodov — friendship of the nationalities — was the slogan. So it did not matter if they were bundled together in the various republics of the former USSR. Southern Ossetians and Abkhazians were pushed into Georgia even though they had little cultural, religious or any other connection; Christian Armenians found themselves inside Muslim Azerbaijan. And large numbers of Russian-speakers found themselves inside Moldova, Kazakhstan, the Baltic States and Ukraine.

The hoped-for Communist love-in never happened. One of the better Radio Armenia jokes doing the rounds when I was working in the former Soviet Union goes like this:

Dear Announcer, what is druzhba narodov? Comrade, it is when Armenians join together with the Russians, the Uzbeks, the Azerbaijanis, the Tajiks, the Kirgizi, the Kazakhs, the Turkmenians, the Estonians, the Latvians, the Lithuanians, and the Ukrainians, and they all go off together to beat up the Georgians.

As you can guess, Georgians were not greatly loved by neighboring Armenia. The only thing keeping them all together was strong central control from Moscow, and harsh repression of any nationalistic break-away tendencies

With the arbitrary breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 into its former republics, frictions were inevitable, and some were ugly. Russians in the Baltic states suffered severe job discrimination. Armenians went into a brutal and still continuing war with Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh district inside Azerbaijan but populated by Armenians.

In 1992 Russians stranded in Moldova fought a brief war to create their own independent self-styled republic (Transnistria, now blockaded by Ukraine), as did the pro-Russians in Georgia’s Abkhazia. In 2008 the Georgian attack into South Ossetia led to a counterattack by Russia, which then recognized South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states.

Crimea, which had been rather foolishly gifted to Ukraine by Russia in 1954, despite its Russian majority and strong military importance to Moscow, has now been returned to its former owner.

Within Ukraine, the situation had long remained fairly stable under the rule of Kiev; Ukrainians and Russian-speakers share fairly similar languages, religions and cultures. But as the economy faltered and the politics disintegrated, lingering historical distrust between east and west surfaced, with the results we see today. Pro-Russians blame ultra right-wing, anti-Russian nationalists in the west acting under Western influence, and to some extent they are right.

Kiev’s short-lived attempt to restrict use of the Russian language in this bi-lingual society was extremely foolish.

Moscow is also to blame; its repressive politics have repelled many in the Ukraine, the better-educated especially, who now see closer ties with the West as the only escape from current problems. A federation that allows both sides reasonable autonomy under a central government is clearly the best answer.

As for the Crimea problem, we can learn much from the former Yugoslavia. Here the communistic ideal of mixing the peoples together in a bid to overcome deep wartime hatreds has also proved optimistic.

The only answer has been separation of the peoples — in Croatia, with the expulsion of the Serb minority, and in Bosnia with the Serbs setting up their own semi-independent republic. As constituent republics in former Yugoslavia they have been able to go their own independent way. But in Kosovo, which like Crimea did not have republic status, independence from Serbia could only be claimed after the Serb minority was either expelled or forced into a tiny enclave. Curiously, the West which condemned the bloodless separation of Crimea from Ukraine, supported the separation of Kosovo from Serbia.

Ask Western officials why the difference and they will say because the Kosovo separation was done over time. Yes, time for the brutal bombing of Serbia and for the savage ethnic cleansing of remaining Serbs, Jews, and Romas. It is time for a lot more clear thinking in the West over the Ukraine problem.

Japan needs it even more. By its knee-jerk support for the West over Ukraine, Tokyo not only guarantees Moscow’s refusal to offer any compromise in the dispute over ownership of the south Kuril Islands (the so-called Northern Territories). It is also supporting Western moves that guarantee Russia will move closer to China. Tokyo loses out in both directions, simply to support Western moves of doubtful common sense and dubious legality. Strategic thinking was never a Tokyo forte, but this time it has really blundered.

Gregory Clark is a former Australian diplomat with China and Russia experience, and a longtime resident of Japan. A Japanese translation of this article will be at www.gregoryclark.net.

  • John Souttar

    excellent balanced article. I would add 3 things. The wheat crop in Ukraine which is the world’s 3rd largest exporter is vast and much comes from the east. Wheat prices are rising, drought threatens the American crops and this may become a big player. I have noticed much anger and cynicism in Britain about the western actions and comment boards were full of criticism but today those complaining are described as Russian trolls and boards are being moderated or closed. The oil surplus stocks and fracking gas in the US is competing with Russia’s hold on the EU market so sanctions may rebalance this.

  • TotalAnarchy

    There is a big difference between Kosovo and Crimea. Kosovo actually obtained independence, while Crimea was incorporated into Russia. In fact I have a hard time remembering when was the last time a country annexed a territory before this. It’s pretty clear that Russia has lost all credibility.

    Well that’s not ‘the’ reason however. The reason is that both Ukrainians and the West have a hard time understanding why territories populated by people who identify themselves primarily as Ukrainians need to be federalized. Russia wants to change that, and in order to convince the Ukrainians in eastern Ukraine that they’re somehow different for being Russian-speaking it simply invented this crisis.