August 25, 2014
The news from Ukraine does not as yet indicate that there is going to be a peaceful, negotiated end to the current crisis with government troops using air power and ground forces against separatists who are fast losing territory. The human toll, with 2119 dead and 5043 wounded, keeps mounting. Over 380,000 have fled, with more than half to Russia.
The US does not seem to be keen on promoting a peaceful settlement. Germany though agreeing to economic sanctions against Russia, rather reluctantly and after much delay, finds itself in a predicament. The German economy shrank by 0.2 % in the quarter ending 30 June as opposed to 0.7% growth in the previous quarter. It is generally agreed that the sanctions imposed by EU on Russia and the retaliatory sanctions imposed by it are the main cause of the shrinking of the economy. Can Germany afford to continue with or, if need be, expand the sanctions? Obviously, no. But, there is popular support for a tough line with Russia.
For the Russians, Ukraine’s capital Kiev is the cradle of their Orthodox Church and of the Russian nation. In 1783, Prince Potemkin established a base in Sevastopol in the Crimea for the Russian navy. A section of the Ukrainians actively collaborated with Nazi Germany in World War 2 and fought the Soviet Union. In 1954, Nikita Khrushchev without consultations with his colleagues handed over Crimea to Ukraine to mark the 300th anniversary of Council of Periyaslav (1654) that marked Ukraine’s joining Russia in return for protection against Poland. It was only in 1978 that Ukraine got control of Sevastopol. The Russian navy continued to use the base under a lease agreement renewed from to time amidst indications that Kiev had reservations against such leasing after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia wanted the US troops to remain in Europe as an insurance against any re-armament of a united Germany. But, Russia did not want the NATO to expand and to get closer to it. It has historical memory of enemy forces coming to Russia once under Napoleon and twice from Germany, the last being under Hitler. That is why the Soviet Union insisted on the neutralization of Finland before agreeing to withdraw its forces from that country following the end of World War 2.
When the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact collapsed there was a brief debate about the need for the continuation of NATO and the need to cash the ‘peace dividend’. Soon it was decided, partly under pressure from the military-industrial complex, that far from disbanding, NATO should be expanded. In 1999, Czech, Hungary, and Poland joined. In 2004, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia joined. Russia was watching anxiously, but powerless to act.
In 2008, US advocated the inclusion of Georgia and Ukraine. Germany and France opposed, fearing Russian reaction. Later that year Russia sent in troops when separatists in Abkhazia and South Ossetia wanted to secede from Georgia. Georgia lost the two regions and the NATO was in no position to take on Russia militarily.
Since 1991, according to US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland, US has spent $5 billion “to promote democracy in Ukraine“ or more accurately, to get Ukraine to join NATO and EU. In other words, despite the Russian military response in Georgia in 2008 US persisted with its plans for Ukraine.
In November 2013, President Yanukovych from the eastern part of Ukraine, where Russian speakers are in majority, refused to sign a partnership deal with EU owing to opposition from Russia which extended a loan of $15 billion. The US decided that it was time to accelerate Ukraine’s march towards NATO membership. Street demonstrations in which Vitoria Nuland and Senator John McCain participated compelled Yanukovych to agree to early elections and to reform the constitution to reduce the powers of the president. A draft agreement arrived at in the presence of foreign ministers of the UK, Poland and France and a representative of Russia on February 21, 2013 was sabotaged by US by engineering more violent street demonstrations leading to the flight of Yanukovych who surfaced days later in Russia. The next day, Russia moved more troops to Sevastopol and the separatist movement in the Crimea resurfaced and following a referendum the Crimea became ‘independent’ and later requested Russia to agree to its merger. The request was accepted with alacrity. The West protested loudly, but was powerless to stand in the way. Obviously, Russia feared that if Ukraine joined EU and NATO, there will be a NATO base in Sevastopol.
Soon separatist movements materialised in the east of Ukraine and after the customary referendum, independence was declared in Donetsk and Lohansk. Kiev started military operations, but without much success. There was a change after the shooting down of the Malaysian flight MH17. Kiev accused the separatists and the US and the West concurred without waiting for evidence. President Putin did not demonstrate the diplomatic smartness associated with him when the flight was shot down causing the loss of over 270 lives. He could have immediately sent in his condolences to Malaysia and other states whose nationals were killed and announced his support for an enquiry to bring the guilty to justice. An impression was created that he had lent missiles to the separatists who shot down the flight, probably mistaking it for a military aircraft in the vicinity. The black box is in the UK, but no evidence about how the aircraft was brought down has been published. There are experts in the US and Germany who have argued that it was probably an air-to-air missile in which case Ukraine is guilty. As of now we do not know.
After the shooting down of MH17, Russia came under sanctions and the military operations against the separatists gained momentum.
President Putin sent about 280 trucks with ‘humanitarian relief items’ and Ukraine complained of aggression. The West too protested. But, Russia ignored the protests and the trucks went in and got out without permission from Ukrainian customs as they do not control the check point. Was President Putin sending out a reminder of what happened in 2008 in the case of Georgia? Incidentally, he got his trucks out before Chancellor Merkel reached Kiev for a visit since 2008. Let us see whether she will succeed in persuading Ukraine to seek a negotiated way out of the crisis or encourage further confrontation?
It is possible, if there is political will, to find a negotiated settlement on the basis of a new constitution giving greater say to regions in foreign policy. In brief, the US should agree to a sort of Finlandization of Ukraine, without saying that in so many words. Otherwise, there is risk of a repeat of Georgia 2008. Further economic sanctions and political isolation of Russia will not make it change course. As it is President Obama has brought Russia and China closer, certainly not to the advantage of the US.
Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India