Sunday, March 22, 2015

Fateful Steps That Led to the Crisis in Ukraine (Part One)

Fateful Steps That Led to the Crisis in Ukraine (Part One)
Thomas Riggins

The crisis that struck Ukraine last year-- the overthrow of the elected president, the Russian annexation of Crimea, the rebellion in the Russian speaking eastern provinces— was the result of problems that had been festering, not only in Ukraine but all along the former frontiers of the USSR since the end of the cold war and the collapse of eastern European socialism over twenty some years previously. 

There were many pressure points and areas of potential conflict along this defunct border. Over the years they became more and more exacerbated mainly as a result of the triumphalist attitude of the US and its allies over the end of the Cold War which they considered as a "victory" of their side over the Russians and their allies.

Meanwhile the Russians and their remaining close allies had considered the end of the Cold War as a cooperative undertaking in which, with western help, the leadership of the USSR would dismantle the Warsaw Pact and replace state socialism with a European style market economy thus eliminating the threat of nuclear war and allowing for the eventual flourishing of a united European civilization stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

The "we won, you lost" attitude assumed by the US (and its NATO puppet) along with the EU has led to economic and political actions the Russians and their allies believe threaten their interests and rights. This is the theses of professor Richard Sakwa of Kent University (UK) in his new book Frontline Ukraine. This article will attempt to highlight the fateful steps that have led to the current crisis as professor Sakwa annunciated them (any misinterpretations or errors are mine).

One of the major steps was the growth of NATO right up to borders of Russia after the Russians had been given assurances by the US that that would not happen. The US now argues that the growth of  NATO  was necessary due to the 
security problems along its borders. This overlooks the fact that it is the new borders that are the location of these problems. As Sakwa puts it, “NATO’s existence became justified by the needs to manage the security threats provoked by its enlargement.” This kind of mendacious logic is typical of the US ’s (and to a lesser extent the EU’s) dealings with Russia. Echoed by the corporate media in the US, it is one of the main reasons the American people are ignorant of the true causes of the Ukraine crisis and for their antipathy toward Russia.

The reason there are so many problems between the US (and its satellites) and Russia is because there are many systemic contradictions between them left over from the end of the Cold War and there has been little, if any, attempt by the West to  seriously try to resolve them by good faith negotiations. When a problem boils over, as in the Ukraine (and earlier in Georgia), all the blame is put on Russia and the solution is framed as the need for the US and the West to make the Russians back down. This, Sakwa points out, only makes the contradictions between the interests of the Russians and the US side worse. 

A major consideration with regard to the West’s relations with Russia is that after the collapse of the USSR Russia was economically in turmoil and politically weak. The West could pretty much do as it wanted as Russia, as well as Ukraine, were dominated by corruption, oligarchs calling the shots, and the need to concentrate on internal problems not foreign affairs.

Russia  was able to economically benefit during the early years of the 2000s, due to high profits of oil, and Putin was able, despite democratic short comings, to curtail the power of the oligarchs, reassert state ownership in many strategic areas of the economy, and reinvigorate the Russian economy and state. This allowed the Russians to reengage in foreign affairs and begin to reassert their perceived interests vis a vis those of the West once they realized it was not part of the West’s intentions to work in partnership with them to peacefully resolve contradictions to the mutual benefit of all concerned. If not a cold war the US was starting a “Cool War.” In contrast Ukraine remained mired in corruption and the control of oligarchs
despite a democratic facade.

Another important point made by Sakwa concerns the makeup of the Ukrainian nation. There are two contradictory views which he calls the monistic and pluralistic views. In short, the monistic view, held by the Ukrainian government and the ultra nationalist faction which dominates western Ukraine is that the country is a unique cultural whole bound together by its national language which has its own historical destiny to fulfill as part of the European continuum and is thus more closely bound to the EU than to Russia which is seen as an alien foreign influence.

The pluralistic view, which dominates in the eastern Russian speaking Ukraine, maintains that the peoples of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine are related by a common cultural ancestry born of their participation in a common early state and religion (orthodox Christianity since 988 AD). The common state (Kievian Rus) was destroyed by the Mongol invasion in 1240, nevertheless the common cultural unity persists and the three peoples are more closely bound to one another than to the EU and its people. This is admittedly simplified and Sakwa will expand upon it later.

Surveys and polls show that as late as 2005 around 67% of eastern Russian speaking Ukrainians identified with Ukraine as their country and there was no great feeling to join with Russia or become independent. There were major problems, however, which included worries and complaints about the status and use of Russian, negative attitudes towards NATO and no desire to identify with Europe and the West at the expense of Russia. 

All of these issues could have been dealt with democratically within Ukraine by means of parliamentary processes and constitutional guarantees. What has led to the present crisis in Ukraine was the perception by the Russian speaking east that the undemocratic overthrow of the elected government in February 2014 brought to power ultra-nationalist forces that were seeking to force their views on the east and that eastern concerns, beliefs, and rights were being ignored and even abrogated.

This eastern crisis is a separate issue from the Crimea. The Russians in the Crimea were never happy about being separated from Russia due to the fact that in 1954 the USSR transferred the area to Ukrainian administration for purposes of cost efficiency. No one then even dreamed of the possibility that the Crimea would be cut off from Russia in an independent Ukraine. Sakwa points out that the Crimea, after all, "is the heartland of Russian nationhood." 

The annexation of the peninsula  by Russia was welcomed by the majority of people living there and while its return to its motherland set off the storm that has now descended upon US and European relations with Russia (totally provoked by the West and its backing of the overthrow of the constitutional government of Ukraine) it is unlikely to be reversed. The issues in the eastern provinces of Ukraine have to be settled independently of those of the Crimea which is now a part of Russia and likely to remain so. (To be continued.)

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Prolegomena to Any Future Understanding of the Crisis in Ukraine

Thomas Riggins

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'ĂȘtre 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.