The political and military maneuvers now going on in the Ukraine have the potential of escalating out of control. If we don't understand the actual reality that has brought about this crisis there is no hope of being able to prevent this escalation. In order to understand this reality we must refrain from simple minded finger pointing at one side or the other and assigning complete responsibility for the crisis to one of the parties in the dispute, although one side may be disproportionately responsible.
The establishment media in the West (reflecting the position of the US and the EU) seems to have arrived at a consensus that the crisis is the result of a revanchist foreign policy initiative of the Russian Federation and its president Vladimir Putin on the one hand and the aspirations of the Kiev government to build a democratic Ukraine based on the western European model and free of undue Russian influence and domination on the other.
This has been simplified by many to a proxy war between a dictatorial undemocratic Russia out to eventually recreate the defunct USSR's boundaries and the Western democracies led by the US once again called upon to defend the Free World. The phrase "a new cold war" encapsulates this position.
That this is a warped view of the Ukrainian crisis is suggested by a reading of a new book, Frontline Ukraine: Crisis in the Borderlands (Tauris, 2014) by Richard Sakwa, an expert at the University of Kent in the UK. The "Preface" to this book presents the following historical background to the current crisis which goes back many decades to a time before there was any Vladimir Putin, Russian Federation or independent Ukraine.
When the cold war ended with collapse of the Soviet Union and east European "socialism" there was a possibility of establishing a pan-European order that would have provided for peace and security for all European countries. However, the EU and NATO made no provision for the inclusion of Russia in a common European "defense" alliance. This resulted, according to Sakwa, in numerous "stress points" along the borders of the EU and the former USSR.
One major stress point was the fact that NATO, a military anti-Soviet (anti-Russian) alliance which had faced off against the Warsaw Pact during the cold war, now had lost its raison d'être and with the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact should have also come to end. The US however decided not only to keep NATO in existence but to enlarge it-- clearly an aggressive and hostile act no matter how it is presented.
As a result two different visions of Europe's future developed, Sakwa says. The two are that of a "Wider Europe" and a "Greater Europe." The former represents the EU with France and Germany (basically Germany) at the core and its extension eastward incorporating former Warsaw Pact countries and parts of the old USSR. [A 21st century version of Drang nach Osten.]
The latter represents a vision of "one Europe" but is inclusive of all parts of Europe and not dominated by "Brussels, Washington or Moscow." It would be "multi-polar and pluralistic.'' Both Russia and the Ukraine (both pluralistic) would be part of it. This is the vision favored by the Russians. Sakwa says these visions are not necessarily stark alternatives: with good will some kind of synthesis could be reached.
The US and EU have decided against "Greater Europe" and seek to construct the vision of "Wider Europe" leaving the Russians as odd man out. This decision [based on the interests of US and Western capital] and being implemented by stoking old historical grudges going back to the first world war and even earlier, is the background to the current crisis.
The different factions in the Ukraine are (unscientifically) being associated with colors-- primarily orange, blue, and gold. The Kiev government, backed by the EU and US, is the "orange" faction. Its basic desire is to form an Ukrainian national Slavic government with one official language (Ukrainian), culturally homogeneous and identified as far as possible with the EU and NATO.
There are millions of Russian speaking Slavs within the boundaries of Ukraine that do not share this orange outlook. They make up the "blue" faction which points out that different regions of the country have different linguistic, cultural and historical experiences and if the Ukraine is to work these realities have to be taken into consideration and respected. As it stands, the orange and blue factions don't seem suited for co-existence in the same political framework. To make things more complicated both factions are being supported and aided by outside players.
One last major faction is the "gold" faction. This is the faction representing the new billionaires (the oligarchs) that arose out of the collapse of the USSR and through corruption and undemocratic machinations have attained unprecedented political power in the country and can manipulate the Ukrainian "political class."
Sakwa says the country has produced "no visionary leader" who has been able to command the loyalty of all these factions and unite them around a project of successful nation building.
These are, more or less, the major ideas in the preface to Sakwa's book. It will impossible to understand the crisis going in the Ukraine without keeping them in mind. For those who think the crisis is the result of the big bad Putin and Russian "aggression" there is no hope at all of their understanding anything that is going on in Ukraine.