Ukraine in Context: What You Don't Know About a New Cold War
In a crisis that betrays simple narratives, analysts hope for solutions that de-escalate the threat of violence while protecting ordinary Ukrainians from the various interests of elite powers
As the events in Ukraine have sent world leaders scurrying to develop and spread narratives that serve their own interests, the complexities of the geopolitical and economic implications—whether from a Russian, American, European or Ukrainian perspective—have become elusive to those trying to understand exactly what's going on inside the country.
While the U.S. media is obsessed with what it likes to describe as the belligerence of Russian President Vladimir Putin and the political implications the crisis is having on Obama's foreign policy legacy, much of what is lost in the coverage is a more critical look at how Cold War history, austerity economics, and deep mistrust have emerged to make the situation in Ukraine, as one historian puts it, "the worst history of our lifetime."
What follows is a brief roundup of some of the contours missing from the surface coverage by voices that take a tougher and more in-depth look at the still unfolding situation.
NATO Encroachment, Not Russian Aggression
For his part, Stephen Cohen, professor emeritus at New York University and Princeton University who has long focused on Russia, says what is constantly missing from most mainstream coverage in the U.S. is the very real perception by many in Russia who see a European takeover of Ukraine as a direct military encroachment by the NATO powers on their western border.
This, he says, may be lost on an American audience, but the seriousness of it is not lost on those who know the history of War World I and the bloodshed along the Russian front after War World II that led to the Cold War.
Appearing on CNN this weekend, Cohen told viewers that it is U.S. and European policy in recent years, not what Putin is now doing, that deserves the most severe criticism. He said:
We are witnessing as we talk the making possibly of the worst history of our lifetime. We are watching the descending of a new cold war divide between west and east, only this time, it is not in far away Berlin, it's right on Russia's borders through the historical civilization in Ukraine. It's a crisis of historic magnitude. If you ask how we got in it, how we got into the crisis, and how therefore do we get out, it is time to stop asking why Putin - why Putin is doing this or that, but ask about the American policy, and the European Union policy that led to this moment.
Asked to elaborate, Cohen continued:
I don't know if you your listeners or views remember George Kennan. He was considered [a] great strategic thinker about Russia among American diplomats but he warned when we expanded NATO [under Bill Clinton], that this was the most fateful mistake of American foreign policy and that it would lead to a new Cold War. George lived to his hundreds, died a few years ago, but his truth goes marching on. The decision to move NATO beginning in the 90's continuing under Bush and continuing under Obama, is right now on Russia's borders.
And if you want to know for sure, and I have spent a lot of time in Moscow, if you want to know what the Russian power elite thinks Ukraine is about, it is about bringing it into NATO. One last point, that so-called economic partnership that Yanukovych, the elected president of Ukraine did not sign, and that set off the streets - the protests in the streets in November, which led to this violence in and confrontation today, that so-called economic agreement included military clauses which said that Ukraine by signing this so called civilization agreement had to abide by NATO military policy. This is what this is about from the Russian point of view, the ongoing western march towards post Soviet Russia.
Jonathan Steele, writing for Guardian, argues that both the US and the EU need to ratchet down both their rhetoric and threats. He contends the only real solution to the turmoil in Ukraine is one which respects the rights and aspirations of all Ukrainians. Matching Cohen's analysis in some way regarding NATO's encroachment, Steele writes:
Both John Kerry's threats to expel Russia from the G8 and the Ukrainian government's plea for Nato aid mark a dangerous escalation of a crisis that can easily be contained if cool heads prevail. Hysteria seems to be the mood in Washington and Kiev, with the new Ukrainian prime minister claiming, "We are on the brink of disaster" as he calls up army reserves in response to Russian military movements in Crimea.
Were he talking about the country's economic plight he would have a point. Instead, along with much of the US and European media, he was over-dramatising developments in the east, where Russian speakers are understandably alarmed after the new Kiev authorities scrapped a law allowing Russian as an official language in their areas. They see it as proof that the anti-Russian ultra-nationalists from western Ukraine who were the dominant force in last month's insurrection still control it. Eastern Ukrainians fear similar tactics of storming public buildings could be used against their elected officials.
Kerry's rush to punish Russia and Nato's decision to respond to Kiev's call by holding a meeting of member states' ambassadors in Brussels today were mistakes. Ukraine is not part of the alliance, so none of the obligations of common defence come into play. Nato should refrain from interfering in Ukraine by word or deed. The fact that it insists on getting engaged reveals the elephant in the room: underlying the crisis in Crimea and Russia's fierce resistance to potential changes is Nato's undisguised ambition to continue two decades of expansion into what used to be called "post-Soviet space", led by Bill Clinton and taken up by successive administrations in Washington. At the back of Pentagon minds, no doubt, is the dream that a US navy will one day replace the Russian Black Sea fleet in the Crimean ports of Sevastopol and Balaclava.
As for Russia's involvement, it should at least be seen in light of its own interests and the legality of the military intervention. Even if not justified, says Steele, it must be compared to that of other world powers who now wave their finger at Moscow with such hypocrisy. He concludes:
Vladimir Putin's troop movements in Crimea, which are supported by most Russians, are of questionable legality under the terms of the peace and friendship treaty that Russia signed with Ukraine in 1997. But their illegality is considerably less clear-cut than that of the US-led invasion of Iraq, or of Afghanistan, where the UN security council only authorised the intervention several weeks after it had happened. And Russia's troop movements can be reversed if the crisis abates. That would require the restoration of the language law in eastern Ukraine and firm action to prevent armed groups of anti-Russian nationalists threatening public buildings there.
The Russian-speaking majority in the region is as angry with elite corruption, unemployment and economic inequality as people in western Ukraine. But it also feels beleaguered and provoked, with its cultural heritage under existential threat. Responsibility for eliminating those concerns lies not in Washington, Brussels or Moscow, but solely in Kiev.
In Crimea: 'Not separatists... Federalists.'
Another aspect that has created controversy is whether the Russian military presence in Crimea and the rejection of the new Kiev government in other places in the south and east of the country is pretext for a secessionist movement within those provinces. Others worry that the political split between east and west could lead to all out civil war or a regional conflagration with the Ukraine army in the west, backed by the EU and US, facing off against Russian-backed forces in the east.
But Nicolai Petro, a professor of politics at the University of Rhode Island and currently a Fulbright research scholar in Ukraine, says those opposing the takeover in Kiev are not interested in splitting Ukraine, but instead are concerned about losing key rights, including their ability to retain their Russian heritage under new legal edicts. And, says Petro, those with close economic ties to Russia seeing those interests subjugated by a government beholden to European interests does little to inspire confidence in the emerging government that has taken control in Kiev.
Despite those worries, however, those characterized as 'Pro-Russian' do not want to secede, argues Petro in The Nation. He explains:
The regions in the South and East that oppose the [new government in Kiev] are not demanding to leave Ukraine. [...] They seek a more formal recognition of their rights. A popular slogan at a recent anti-Maidan meeting in [eastern city of] Kharkiv was ‘We are not separatists. We are federalists.’
Even in Crimea, the government recently put in place by local ‘self-defense forces’ has asked only for a referendum, citing the need to guarantee its autonomy ‘under any changes in central authority or the Constitution of Ukraine.’ The referendum question in fact stipulates that Crimea ‘is part of Ukraine on the basis of agreements and accords.’
In this context being ‘pro-Russian’ does not mean joining Russia. It means speaking, worshiping, and going to school in your own language, in your own country — Ukraine.
Lastly, informed observers note that what's really driving the crisis in Ukraine is about the country's faltering economic conditions more than anything else. What should not be lost, they suggest, is the fact that Ukraine—guided by the interim government in Kiev—is now on the verge of taking on billions of dollars in public debt by accepting financial bailout packages from the International Monetary Fund and European banks.
The Wall Street Journal reports Monday that an IMF team is en route to Kiev to begin discussions with the interim government there over the possible details of such a financial package.
As the economist Michael Roberts noted recently, "the people of Ukraine [were] left with Hobson's choice: either go with KGB-led crony capitalism from Russia or go with equally corrupt pro-European 'democrats'".
The collapse of the pro-Russian regime of Yanukovych is a big defeat for Russia national interests. Putin sees Ukraine as a satellite of Russian crony capitalism. As he once told the then-US President George Bush: “Ukraine is not even a state”. In public, Mr Putin can’t bring himself to call Ukraine anything but a “krai,” the Russian word for territory. He was determined to stop Ukraine coming under the wing of German-led European capitalism. But his man, Yanukovych could not deliver.
Now the pro-European bourgeois leaders in Kiev will prostrate themselves before the EU and IMF in order obtain ‘aid’. These politicians are just as much in the hands of Ukraine’s billionaire oligarchs as the ousted pro-Russian government were. As the German journal, Der Spiegel has explained, two oligarchs, Akhmetov and Firtash, between them control over 90 MPs in the Ukraine parliament. Akhmetov is worth $15 billion and is head of the holdings company System Capital Management, which controls more than 100 companies with some 300,000 employees. They include metallurgical and pipe factories, banks, real estate firms, mobile phone enterprises and a large media company. He is the de-facto ruler of Donbass, the home of Ukrainian heavy industry and owns the football team Shakhtar Donetsk.
These oligarchs soon realised well before the current crisis that Yanukovych would not be around for much longer. They began carefully looking around for alternatives.
But as Andrej Nikolaidis, a Bosnian who says the situation in Ukraine reminds him all too much about what happened in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990's, says in a piece in the Guardian on Monday: "When common people find themselves in the middle of a geopolitical storm – as the citizens of Ukraine do now, or my family back then in Bosnia – the dilemma "is this glass half empty or half full?" is irrelevant: soon, it will be broken."
And Nikolaidis continues with a warning:
In their struggle to overcome Russian occupation and survive all the Trojan horses from the institutions of global capitalism, it is to be hoped that people in Ukraine learned a thing from the war in Bosnia – that a deus ex machina from the west will never land, solving the situation and leading them into the promised land of the EU.
Bosnia today is a poor and divided country, even more so than it was back in 1992. Former soldiers, hungry and sick, are gathering and protesting. "While we were bleeding, they were stealing," says one. In the past, they were ready to die for their nation and its bright future. Some Bosnians saw their future under the Bosnian and EU flag, others under the Croatian and EU flag, and others still under the flag of The Great Serbia. Lots of flags, but only one poverty for all.
What's needed in that context, according to Petro's assessment, is a diplomatic and economic solution that caters to the interests of all Ukrainans, not one driven by discussions that take place "in New York, Brussels or Moscow."
"The partners that need to resolve their differences are all inside Ukraine," he says, "and the issue they need to address is full equality between the two major cultural components of Ukrainian identity, Ukrainian and Russian. Only this can provide the basis for a common vision for the future shared across the entire land."