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Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Ukraine: why are we trying to start a new cold war with Russia?


A lot of things don't make sense about the Ukrainian uprising. For instance, we were constantly told that Russia basically ran the country – that Viktor Yanukovych was a puppet president. In which case, why did Yanukovych fall so easily and why did Russia do nothing to protect him?
Also, why has Britain pledged to offer aid to whatever government replaces him? Apparently, our foreign policy has become to hand out cash to anyone who sets themselves up in opposition to Vladimir Putin. Perhaps it would be quicker to throw bundles of fifty pound notes out of an airplane over Kiev.

If we did that, into whose hands would the cash fall? Uncertainty over the answer reflects how complicated this conflict is. Last week I wrote about Svboda, the far-Right opposition group that is popular in Western Ukraine and whose members think the Holocaust was a moment of joy that still brings hope to millions. Since then readers have been suggesting I take a look at another organisation called the Right Sector. They are typically the people your see on TV waving red and black flags, a flag used by Ukrainians who collaborated with the Nazis in World War II.

Right Sector is so Right-wing that it thinks Svboda is run by pansy poet liberals. Recently, Time snagged an interview with its leader and he boasted that he has amassed "a lethal arsenal of weapons", including guns. Indeed, its role in the protests is substantial, frightening:
The group serves some of the uprising’s most essential functions. Its fighters control the barricades around the protest camp in the center of Ukraine’s capital, and when riot police have tried to tear it down, they have been on the front lines beating them back with clubs, rocks, Molotov cocktails and even a few catapults, in the mold of siege engines of the Middle Ages. Around the country, its fighters have helped seize government headquarters in more than a dozen cities.
They have also taken the lead in beating up policemen. It's not unreasonable to speculate that they were involved in the removal of a statue celebrating the Soviet-led liberation of Ukraine from the Nazis – a liberation that elements of the Ukrainian far-Right regard as a huge mistake. You can see some photos of their engagement in the protests here. One that stands out is the use of a shield with "88" daubed on it – shorthand for Heil Hitler. This collage, from Independence Square, also tells its own story.

The Right Sector thug is on the bottom right (Photo: Reuters).

None of these details should imply that the Ukrainian opposition is racist or undemocratic. On the contrary. The crisis has occurred because a democratically elected government first surrendered its foreign policy to Russia and then used violence to quell protest. The righteous opposition includes democrats, clergy, communists, nationalists and apolotical Ukrainians who simply want their country to achieve fuller independence.

But the situation is complex. A significant portion of the country regards itself as Russian for the very good reason that the country was part of Russia for centuries. Its current form bears comparison with the former Yugoslavia, right down to the toxic mix of ethnicities. And in the same way that the story of Yugoslavia's break-up is one of victims becoming murderers and murderers becoming victims – we shouldn't presume that the Western Ukrainians won't prove every bit as brutal as the state they are busily overthrowing. The presence of Right Sector thugs with clubs is a worrying prophecy.

So what should the UK do? The smart answer might be "as little as possible". Partly because we could be injecting ourselves into a future civil war. But also because when we a) declare an interest in a foreign crisis but b) don't actually do anything because the last thing we want is direct confrontation with Russia, then we don't look strong – we look foolish and weak. That's what happened in Syria, where we talked tough but pulled back from military action – and handed Putin a win.

Not that we should see British foreign policy entirely through the prism of point-scoring against Vladimir Putin. The West's attempt to revive the Cold War is irrational and based on a fundamental misunderstanding of both Russia's ambitions and its capacity to see them through. Russia seems to simply be interested in defending its old alliances, much as the US did when it supported the Contras or invaded Grenada. It is the West, not the East, that has projected its military power by invading countries miles away (Iraq, Afghanistan, the airspace of Pakistan), while Russia simply tries to keep its own limited sphere of influence in check. As my first question at the top of this post indicates, it's not even very good at doing that.

Yes, the government of Vladimir Putin falls short on Western human rights standards and its influence on its neighbours is baleful. But there is worse in the world. We would do better to confront China, which genuinely is a dictatorship (Russia is not, no matter how many British TV personalities say it is) and which is currently threatening war with Japan – a country with considerably greater strategic and economic importance to the West.
Russia is a paper tiger. Why we're wasting time hunting it, I cannot imagine.



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