History has its ironies. At precisely the moment the people of Scotland were being allowed peacefully to decide their future within the United Kingdom, a joint session of the U.S. Congress was giving standing ovations to Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko who, if taken seriously, was calling for brutal suppression of a minority in his country seeking similar freedom.
The Western opposition to Russian- speakers in Ukraine seeking the right to some form of autonomy has been extraordinary. Few of our politicians and commentators would even think of condemning the moves in Scotland, Catalonia or Quebec seeking independence, or the many moves to autonomy based on cultural, language or historical differences within the EU nations. Even nations without such differences, such as the U.S. or Australia, see the federation of partly self-governing units as a better form of government.
Yet all seem able to fume with genuine indignation when the Russian- speakers in eastern and southern Ukraine simply seek autonomy from a discriminatory, inefficient and corrupt central government in Kiev.
Scotland deserves independence, we are told, because its union with England some 300 years ago was forced. Well, 300 years ago Ukraine did not even exist. It was largely Russian, with some Polish influence in the west. That Polish influence underlies many of the differences between Ukrainian and Russian culture today. But the Russian input remains dominant. Put those Ukrainian nationalists in front of a TV camera and they are speaking Russian, not Ukrainian.
If after gaining independence in 1991 the Ukrainian government in Kiev had tried to provide good and fair governance to all its peoples, it might have had some reason to continue to insist on central control. That did not happen.
All pretense of fairness disappeared when Kiev tried for a while to ban official use of Russian. When after the 2012 overthrow of the former legally elected government Kiev began to come under the influence of extreme right-wing nationalist forces, some with past pro-Nazi sympathies and a record of anti-Russian and anti-Jewish atrocities, it was inevitable that the pro-Russian elements in the east and southeast would begin to seek autonomy or even union with Moscow. Some impartial observers believe Russian President Vladimir Putin erred in not calling for such union. (See www.paulcraigroberts.org/2014/09/02/warning-world-washington-nato-eu-vassals-insane-paul-craig-roberts-2/)
Yet even Putin’s very moderate autonomy proposal was condemned by the same EU nations that themselves freely allow regional autonomy. They say that, in Europe, autonomy/independence was gained only through gradual negotiation. Oh yes? In Kosovo too, where the West encouraged an ugly guerrilla war then bombed Belgrade to force a separation from a Serbia that had long agreed to autonomy for ethnic Albanians? Or in the U.S. itself, which gained its independence only by force?
The Western nations have been very foolish over Ukraine. In one blow, they have forced the Russians to look much more to the Asian powers, China especially, rather than to the West, which the Russian intellectual elite have always wanted to embrace.
They have imposed sanctions that in the long term can only benefit the Russian economy at the expense of Europe. For far too long, Moscow has let its domestic industries, farming especially, suffer from the flood of glossily attractive EU products on its supermarket shelves. Now it has every incentive to recover much of the industry it foolishly let wither under Western free-trade, free-market hectoring following the 1991 Soviet breakup.
And as the spike in Russian pro-Putin approval ratings shows, Western behavior has severely hurt progressive Russian forces trying to push their nation in a more democratic direction.
The real harm lies elsewhere. It was our Western moralists who came up with the concept of Responsibility to Protect (R2P), to justify intervention in situations like Libya, Syria or Sudan, where a dictatorial central government was using cruel force to oppress people.
What has been happening in Russian-speaking Ukraine has been almost as bad. The Ukrainian military set out deliberately to destroy vital infrastructure in rebel-held areas, and to bomb their populations into submission (our biased media make it seem as if both sides are causing the destruction, as if pro-Russian rebels want to destroy the houses of pro-Russian citizens).
Hundreds of thousands have been forced to flee into Russia to escape a desperate situation that has been compared to the Nazi wartime siege of Leningrad. Even if only for humanitarian R2P reasons, Moscow had every reason to try to support the rebels.
Yet its move to rescue these people from the dreadful fate they faced is condemned as “aggression.” Do we think Russians are stupid, and do not realize the gross contradiction?
We saw the same anti-Russian bias, hatreds even, during the Ossetia crisis of 2008. Here too Moscow intervention was needed to rescue from Georgian attack a pro-Russian minority with its unique culture and language. Somehow that rescue operation was twisted to become a deliberate Russian attack on Georgia, even though Moscow withdrew all its troops after getting the guarantees it wanted for the future safety of pro-Russian minorities there.
There is something sick in the Western mentality that blocks sensible judgment where Russia is concerned. I have no great sympathy for the government there; I was disgusted by the brutal suppression of the Chechnya nationalists — brutality far worse that what we see in Ukraine. I also worked there back in Soviet days and saw close up the bloody-mindedness of a regime determined to harass those of us who learned the language and tried to understand its people (I have written about it on my website).
But I also came to realize just how much those people had suffered as a result of past Western behavior. Their reasons for the mutual distrust were much greater than ours.
Our Western hawks gloat over how they won the Cold War, proving the superiority of our system. This in turn is supposed to justify current policy over Ukraine. But the system they condemned as evil was able to produce a leader with the quality of a Mikhail Gorbachev willing to put an end to Cold War stupidities.
And the leaders that our system has produced? In many cases, no comment is probably the best answer.
Gregory Clark is a former Australian diplomat who served in Moscow 1963-65. He has since lived mainly in Japan as a commentator, university professor and university president. A Japanese translation of this article will appear at www.gregoryclark.net
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.