NATO expansion fuels Russian Nationalism
IN January 1954 the seemingly whimsical Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, who was born on Russia's border with Ukraine and married to a Ukrainian, transferred Russia's Crimean region located along the Russian-Ukrainian border to the then Ukrainian Soviet Republic. This was ostensibly to mark the occasion of 300th anniversary of its unification with Russia. Having been Party Secretary in Ukraine for a long time, Khrushchev felt that the Crimean region would benefit economically from the hydro-electric potential of the Dnieper river by becoming part of the Ukrainian Socialist Republic. Khrushchev obviously did not foresee the collapse of the "indestructible" Soviet Union, which had only two major Southern ports — Sevastopol and Odessa — for continuous access to the sea. When the Soviet Union did fall apart, the Supreme Council of the Russian Republic decided in 1992 that the Crimean region would be renamed as the autonomous Republic of Crimea. Both Sevastopol and Odessa became part of Ukraine.
Not content with the breakup of the Soviet Union, the US and its NATO allies decided that Russian power had to be contained. The expectation was that Russia's far-flung Muslim-dominated Caucasian Republics would wear out the Russians with armed struggle, and that its western, southern and Baltic neighbours would be gradually weaned and integrated with the European Union and NATO. The ultimate aim was clearly to "contain" a resource-rich and militarily capable Russia. This plan was seemingly proceeding successfully during the rule of the occasionally sober Boris Yeltsin, who oddly chose to treat a Chechen leader like a Head of State. The Muslim separatist armed rebellion was liberally funded by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, its leaders like Shamil Basayev and Zelmikhan Yandarbiyev were regarded "Kosher" in western capitals and operated periodically from bases as far away as Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.
The hard-nosed Vladimir Putin soon emerged as the greatest obstacle to these grandiose western plans. Putin ruthlessly crushed the uprising in Chechnya, though sporadic unrest in the Caucasian region from Islamist insurgents and suicide bombings continue. This was evident from the bomb blasts in Volgograd on the eve of the winter Olympics in Sochi. The Saudi intelligence chief, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, is reported to have offered Saudi support in quelling the uprisings in the Caucasian region in return for Russia ending support to the Assad regime in Syria last year -- a proposal reportedly rejected outright by Putin. Moreover, the West appears to have learnt no lessons from the swift Russian military intervention in South Ossetia and Georgia in 2008, following ill-advised efforts to persuade an ever-willing Georgian President Mikheil Sakashvili to join NATO, thereby making Russia's southern frontiers vulnerable.
The present crisis in Ukraine has also arisen from efforts by the US and the EU to undermine a constitutionally elected government. The constitutionally elected Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich had been offered a partnership agreement with the EU to precede full membership. Support for a closer association was strong in the western parts of Ukraine. Those in Eastern Ukraine, where there is a huge Russian-speaking population, have had a much closer relationship with Russia and benefited from extensive trade, energy and commercial ties across the eastern borders of the country. More importantly, Yanukovich signed an agreement with Russia extending the lease of the Sevastopol Port for use by Russia's Black Sea Fleet from 2017 to 2042, with the option of further extension till 2047. This could not have pleased those in Washington keen on "strategic containment" of Russia. When Yanukovich preferred Russian economic support to an association with the EU, a virtual siege was mounted on the Ukrainian capital Kiev by crowds largely drawn from western Ukraine with the muscle power being provided by extreme right-wing elements. The strident demand was for immediate resignation of the President. Eastern Ukraine, from where Yanukovich drew his political support, was largely quiet, or even hostile to what was happening in the capital. But the President's ostentatious lifestyle and maladministration had not exactly endeared him to his countrymen.
While European representatives were endeavouring to negotiate the establishment of a wider coalition in the government, it appears that the hawks in the State Department were prepared to settle for nothing less than the ouster of President Yanukovich. The recorded telephone conversation between Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and the US Ambassador in Kiev, Geoffrey Pyatt, clearly indicated that the State Department was not interested in constitutional niceties. It was bent on effecting an immediate regime change by more violence in Kiev and elsewhere. Moreover, the violence escalated despite an agreement being reached on February 21 for establishing a transitional set-up and early Presidential elections. Sensing that his life was in danger, Yanukovich fled to Russia.
The Russian reaction to these developments was immediate and predictable. An already concerned Russian population in Eastern Ukraine was motivated to seize control of the headquarters of the Russian Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol. The entire Crimean region, which Khrushchev handed over to Ukraine in 1954, came under the control of the Russian-speaking demonstrators backed by armed personnel, quite evidently from across the Russia-Ukraine border. The elected Regional Assembly voted 78 to 1 to hold a referendum on the future of the Crimean Autonomous Region on April 16. The people of the Crimean autonomous region will vote overwhelmingly for merger with Russia. While the Americans, the British and the smaller EU countries call for sanctions against Moscow, mature leaders like Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel realistically believe that, given the need for Moscow's cooperation in energy supplies and its position as a Permanent Member of the Security Council, the only way forward is through a realistic dialogue. Not surprisingly, China has signalled that its interests lie in backing the Russians on these developments, averring: "Russian resistance to the West has global significance. Supporting Russia consolidates China's major strategy".
Russian scholar Sergey Raraganov from the National Research University in Moscow recently noted: "The outlines of a compromise (on Ukraine) are clear. A federal structure for Ukrainian institutions -- and a switch to a parliamentary system in place of a Presidential one -- would enable the people of each region to make their own choices over language and cultural allegiance. The ownership and control of the gas transportation system should be shared between Ukraine and its neighbours. The country should be allowed to participate both in Russia's Customs Union and the EU association deal". As a federal parliamentary democracy, India will find this proposal reasonable and realistic.