Sunday, 23 February 2014

Is the Ukrainian crisis really a leftover from the Cold War?

In today's New York Times ($) David Herszenhorn concludes that, in part, the current crisis and violence in Ukraine is a leftover from the Cold War.  I find the argument thoroughly unconvincing.

In fact, I think that his whole 'primer' does a pretty lousy job at explaining what is going on in Ukraine, missing as it does the key structural, demographic and cultural drivers that divide the nation.

But I'll begin with 'core factor' number two, as this was the one that initially caught my eye.

Second is a lingering Cold War-era fight between Russia and the West for influence over countries in Eastern Europe still suffering from political and economic problems rooted in the Soviet era... Perceiving a threat to its big military and economic interests in Ukraine, Russia exerted enormous pressure to scuttle the accords with the European Union.
The are a number of problems with this analysis.

Firstly, during the Cold War Ukraine was the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, part of the Soviet Union and in no way shape or form part of any fight over influence in Eastern Europe.

(Fun fact: Ukraine, even when part of the Soviet Union, was a founder member of the United Nations and had a seat in the United Nations General Assembly, agreed by accident during discussions between the USSR and USA as WWII came to a close).

Secondly, to view the Cold War as a struggle between Russia/Soviet Union and the West/the USA for influence over countries in Eastern Europe is to completely miss what the Cold War was really about: a struggle to shape the modern world through the newly minted former European colonies.  (Read Arne Westad's The Global Cold War for the best survey of the topic).

Thirdly, and this is really part of the big picture that Herszenhorn misses, Russian interest in Ukraine extends way beyond viewing Ukrainian integration with the EU as being a threat to its military and economic interests.  For Putin and many Russians, Ukraine is part of Russia that through a fluke of history and some bad decisions made during the Soviet era, managed to establish itself as an independent country.  (Ironically, this was partly facilitated by Stalin, a Georgian of course, when, with the agreement of Churchill and Roosevelt, he moved the borders of the Soviet Union westwards, pushing Ukraine further into 'eastern Europe').

The first manifestation of what would become Russia was the Kievan Rus' federation of the 9th century.  Ukraine is the cradle of Russian civilisation, somewhat akin to how many Serbs feel about Kosovo.

The French often declared, with less historical or geographical accuracy that "L'Algerie c'est la France", but Putin has made clear that he has no doubt in his mind that Ukraine is Russia.

This is doubly true when you consider that Crimea, for example, was actually part of Russia until 1954, when the USSR transferred it from the Russian Federative Soviet Socialist Republic to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.  And most of the eastern part of Ukraine speaks Russian, not Ukrainian as the first language.  These thing matter.   It's the same sort of thinking that during the Cold War failed to understand what conflicts like Vietnam were actually about that leads an overly-realist view of what is happening in Ukraine and forgets the power of language and culture.

From The Washington Post: The Battle for Kiev May Well Be Over, But Is the Battle For Crimea About to Begin?

I notice that George Will, a Cold Warrior of considerable stature, has also been promoting this interpretation: Is Ukraine the Cold War's Final Episode?  Somebody needs to tap George on the shoulder and whisper into his ear that had it not been for the Soviet Union then it is highly unlikely that today Ukraine would be anything other than a constituent component of the Federative Kingdom of all the Russias.

 So what about the other 'core factors'?
First is a broken promise between a leader and his citizens: President Viktor F. Yanukovych had long promised to integrate Ukraine with the European Union by signing sweeping political and trade agreements.
 Yes, it is true that what sparked the initial bout of protests was Yanukovych's last-minute refusal to sign an integration agreement with the EU (under considerable Russian pressure), but he did not get elected on a platform of pro-EU integration.  In fact, he defeated the pro-EU integration candidate, the then Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, in the 2010 Presidential election, bringing to an end the 'Orange Revolution', as is made clear in this February 2010 profile.  He did, admittedly, surprise many by charting a more pro-EU path when in office, but this was not the "promise" that got him elected.  The vast majority of those who were spurred to protest his last-minute change of heart voted for his opponent.

What's more, polls showed that only a  minority of Ukrainians supported the EU deal: 42% in May last year, rising to 45% in November; a large minority, but a minority nonetheless.  This does not sit with the 'broken promise' narrative.  And while enthusiasm for joining the Russia-Belarus-Kazhakstan Customs Union has plummeted, that does not alter a sense among many Russian speakers (encouraged by Moscow), that Ukraine is playing a zero-sum game: Kiev cannot run with the hare and hunt with the hounds, as my father might have said.
Third is searing public outrage over the government's sometimes brutal response to the street protests that followed the president's about-face on ties with the European Union.
Ok, I'll grant him this one.

But the bigger picture is the cultural and linguistic divide that separates Ukraine between the Ukrainian-speaking west of the country, and the Russian-speaking east.  Ireland's relationship to Britain is not a bad analogy in some respects. The fault-lines of the contemporary crisis can even be seen in the Ukrainian-Soviet War of 1917-1921, when the Russian Empire fell apart and the country was torn between Ukrainian nationalists and those who fought for Ukraine's inclusion in the new Russian/Soviet Republic.

Ukraine is divided between those who see Ukraine as an eastern European country, with the emphasis on European, and those who feel closer to the embrace of Russia. Nonetheless, part of Ukraine's problem is Russia's national identity and self-perception of being neither European nor Asian.  Despite this, casting the current turmoil as a "lingering Cold War fight" is to repeat the mistakes of a lot of Cold War history: it removes the Ukrainian people from centre-stage, when the real fight is an internal one, not between the EU and Russia.

Some experts believe that this fissure is so great that it might even lead to the permanent partition of the country.

Is It Time For Ukraine To Split Up?

(UPDATE 27/2/14: There is a really interesting analysis of Ukraine's divisions in Time Magazine here, while an article in The Atlantic points out that the linguistic divisions in the east are more complicated: in many oblasts the Russian-speakers may be in a majority but are concentrated in the cities, while the surrounding countryside is largely Ukrainian-speaking (see the example to the left).  That would certainly make the idea of partition, touted above, extremely problematic and likely to lead to violence.)

It was the pro-Russian electorate who emerged victorious in the 2010 presidential election, and it is they who have the right to feel disappointed at Yanukovich's broken promises.  The people who have driven him from office, on the whole, were the losers from 2010.  Their anger with Yanukovych has been heightened in the interim with the treatment and jailing of Tymoshenko on charges of corruption.  While most agree that the charges were politically-motivated and that her trial and imprisonment fell far short of human rights standards (including the European Court of Human Rights), there have been few voices that actually challenge the substance of the allegations against her (which cannot but lead to the conclusion they are all as corrupt as each other).

It is clear that Yanukovych has governed in a heavy-handed and less than democratic fashion, with his authoritarian tendencies increasing the more his back was against the wall.  But he made a crucial error: he prevaricated when the pressure mounted.  He acted-like a half-assed dictator, angering his opponents without effectively suppressing them.  It is a text-book study in how not to be a hardman leader.

It is also something that Putin and Beijing will have taken lessons from.

But as for a lingering Cold War-era fight, and broken promises by a leader to its citizens?  This sounds like something Mitt Romney would have come out with, were the 2012 presidential debates being held now.  In other words, David Herszenhorn, the 1980s called, and want their foreign policy analysis back.


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