The West may be wrong about Ukraine and Russia

Blog pipelinesUkraine verse Russia: A different perspective

 March 3rd 2015

“At the proposal of the Russian Imperial Government, made through the minister of the Emperor residing here, a full power and instructions have been transmitted to the Minister of the United States at St. Petersburgh to arrange, by amicable negotiation, the respective rights and interests of the two nations on the northwest coast of this continent…. In the discussions to which this interest has given rise, and in the arrangements by which they may terminate the occasion has been judged proper for asserting, as a principle in which the rights and interests of the United States are involved, that the American continents, by the free and independent condition which they have assumed and maintain, are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers…”

This excerpt from the Monroe Doctrine, stated in 1823, and ironically, made possible via negotiations with the Russian Empire, was a warning to European powers who sought to meddle or intervene in the Western hemisphere. This doctrine attempted, albeit passively, in the early 19th century to protect the peoples and countries of the Americas from potential external colonisers.

By 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt added his Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine. The addition avowed to uphold order, offer protection, and safeguard the interests of the United States and the countries of the Americas; this included the use of US military force if necessary. President Roosevelt affirmed the United States would “exercise international police power in ‘flagrant cases of such wrongdoing or impotence’” to avoid “foreign aggression to the detriment of the entire body of American nations.”

Effectively, by the beginning of the 20th century, the United States had established a sphere of influence throughout the entire Western hemisphere. A mere cursory glance of 20th century history in the Americas confirms this. The U.S. has intervened, either covertly or blatantly, in Cuba, Nicaragua, Panama, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Haiti, Chile, Grenada, Guatemala, and other countries. This foreign policy stance has changed or been relaxed, somewhat, since the end of the Cold War, however, still today, whether it’s Cuban sanctions, Guantanamo Bay or Mexican and Argentine debt restructuring, there is little doubt who commands “preponderance” in the America’s, as elaborated by Secretary Condoleezza Rice to the Russian Federation during the Bush years.

It’s perhaps a bold posture for a nation and a people who have only inhabited a country for little more than 200 years. Yet, it would be difficult to find many citizens of the United States, either working in the public or private sector that would disagree with the Monroe Doctrine Roosevelt’s Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, or the United States’ regional power and influence.

It’s disputed when the Slavic peoples first appeared in historical records but most historians agree it was sometime between the 8th and 10th centuries when Viking peoples came down the Dnieper River and established trading posts around Kyiv to conduct commerce with Byzantium. These Norsemen intermingled with local Slavic populations, who, eventually were converted to Christianity by missionaries from Constantinople. Most notable were Saint Cyril and Saint Methodius, from whom the Slavic alphabets are derived. Christianity in Kyiv took firmer hold in the 980’s with the conversion of Vladimir Sviatoslavich the Great (Valdamarr Sveinaldsson in Norse), prince of Novgorod, grand prince of Kyiv, and prince of the Rus.

In short, the Russian people for the past 1,000 years have traced their religious, cultural, ethnic, and linguistic origins from the Rus people who originated in Kyiv and the surrounding areas. In history, the principality of Kyiv often included parts of modern day Russia, and later, many parts of Kyiv were united with the principality of Muscovy, which of course, became modern day Moscow and the centre of the Russian Empire.

Additionally, throughout its history, Kyiv and various parts of Ukraine were not only controlled by Russia, but also by the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Poland, Mongols, the Turks and the Hapsbourg Empire; in brief, despite some Ukrainian nationalist sentiment in the mid-nineteenth century, Ukraine has never enjoyed a cohesive demos amongst its population or coherent boarders geographically. More importantly, Ukraine was divided between Poland and Russia in 1686 as part of the Eternal Peace treaty; later in the18th century, as Poland itself was being partitioned between Prussia, the Hapsbourgs, and Russia, Ukraine was divided along the Dnieper River between Austria and Russia. To underscore the ancient and profound divisions existing in Ukraine, even up into modern times, during WWI approximately 3 million Ukrainians, east of the Dnieper, fought for Russia under the Triple Entente while hundreds of thousands of others, west of the Dnieper, fought with Austria in the Central Powers Alliance. Moreover, many Ukrainians fought with Hitler against Russia. In all of Ukraine’s history, the only time it has been mostly united was at the eve of WWII when the Molotov-Ribbentrop agreement was implemented and east Galica and Volhynia were absorbed by the USSR. This being the case, under the Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States, which is recognised in the Americas, the Badinter Arbitration Committee, recognised by the EU, and by most other norms of international law, a State is only a State, inter alia, if it has a territory, a population, and a central political authority; yet Ukraine’s ability to meet these standards for a millennia, and even after 1994, have been tentative at best. In fact, even the name “Ukraine” is a recently developed term. Ukraine means borderlands and thus was always known as “the Ukraine” or the borderlands.

Regarding Crimea, historically it was home to many peoples including Greeks, the Rus, Byzantines, Venetians, and a variety of peoples form the Caucuses until the Mongol invasion in the 13th century. By the 16th century, Crimea was a Tartar Khanate allied with the Ottoman Turks and a major staging area for the exportation of Slavic slaves to the Ottoman Empire. Crimea was conquered by Catherine the Great in 1783 and has been considered amongst Russia’s most strategic assets and the site of its only warm water port at Sevastopol. In 1954, Crimea was given to modern Ukraine by Khrushchev (probably during a drunken stupor) in return for Ukraine’s membership in the USSR; a handover, nevertheless, still considered as illegitimate by most Russians.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990’s, a humiliated Russia was broken apart. Many former republics of the Soviet Union were only too happy to break away and try something new, many of them with good reason, and most of them, like Poland, Czechoslovakia (at the time), and the Baltic countries were already considered coherent States with distinguishable ethnic populations by the international community long before the Russian Empire and Soviet times. In the east, many of the Khanates conquered by the Russians (mostly as a counter-offensive against the ancestors of the Golden Horde) in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries also sought to be independent, though many still maintain strong Russian ties.

Russia, in its Cold War defeat has been more or less conciliatory; vast regions, long considered buffer States within the Russian sphere, have joined the European Union, other Western institutions, and NATO with little or no protest from the Kremlin; amen to that.

So what’s the problem with Ukraine now? To answer that we will have to take a look at another perspective of the Russian historical experience and Russian subsidies in Ukraine since Ukrainian “independence.”

At the beginning of the 13th century, Mongols i.e. the Golden Horde, coming from the east, conquered and subjugated the Russian peoples. For the next two centuries, the principalities encompassing the modern-day territories of the Russian peoples were terrorised, brutalised, and economically savaged by tribute paying to the Mongols. Simultaneously, Lithuania, the Poles, and Teutonic princes advanced from the west, and, by profiting from an enervated Russia, they carved out large chunks of land for themselves. According to Peter Hopkirk, author of the “Great Game,” this Russian fear of encirclement from the east and west was persistently reinforced in modern times with invasions by the Swedes in 1708, the French invasion under Napoleon in 1812, WWI, and Operation Barbarossa in 1941. In the east Russia was habitually harassed and enslaved, post-Mongol times, by Tartars, Turks, and various Central Asian tribes that were offshoots of the Golden Horde. Mr Hopkirk writes:

“Rarely has an experience left such deep and long lasting-lasting scars on a nation’s psyche as this did on the Russians. It goes far towards explaining their historic xenophobia (especially towards eastern peoples), their often aggressive foreign policy, and their stoical acceptance of tyranny at home.”

Today, in the west, Russia sees an increasingly centralised Europe under the EU flag in Brussels, NATO expansion, and potential missile sites in Poland and the Czech Republic; to the east there is the rise of a powerful and assertive China; in Russia’s south they are feeling the barbaric impacts of the growth of radical Islamic terrorism and overall chaos throughout the Levant and Middle East. Crimea has been part of Russia since 1783; that’s longer than the United States has even been a country. It is also, as mentioned above, the location of Russia’s only warm water port, which makes it absolutely critical to the Kremlin’s national security and, without its control, would instinctively contribute to Russia’s anxieties of encirclement exponentially.

Secondly, Russian-Ukrainian relations have been defined by energy, particularly, the flow of natural gas from Central Asia and Russia to Ukraine and onwards from Ukraine to the European Union. This alone is a topic of extensive research and debate. Nonetheless, in order to be brief, Russia is often accused of using natural gas as a political weapon against Ukraine. Most notably in 2006 and 2009 when natural gas transits through Ukraine were cut off causing temporary supply crises in Eastern and Central European EU states. The gas disputes, coincidentally, also corresponded with the election of the pro-Western government of President Yushchenko and Prime Minister Tymoshenko after the Orange Revolution.

However, the narrative often played in the West, that Russia is the big, bad bully to little oppressed Ukraine is simply not true. Whether Ukrainian leaders are described as “pro-West,” like Yushchenko and Tymoshenko, or “pro-Kremlin,” like Yanukovych and Kuchma, it doesn’t really matter. They are all cut from the same cloth – all are political and business oligarchs with more unsavoury histories than any Mafioso. In general, they are fighting each other, via complex intermediaries and subsidiaries, over who personally gets what natural gas royalties where and at what price; whether prices be net-forwarded from the Central Asian frontier (as in the past), or, more recently, net-backed from the EU.

Regarding these gas conflicts, whether happening internally between Ukrainian political elites, or spilling across borders between the EU, Russia, and Central Asia, the one true fact is that whether it’s the Ukrainian people staying warm in winter (whilst paying almost nothing) or Ukrainian industry, such as steel (accounting for 40 per cent of exports), they both have been for decades subsidised and supported by cheap Russian natural gas. If this isn’t true, than why is Ukraine’s national oil and gas company, Naftogaz, bankrupt at the end of every year? Because no Ukrainian government would survive a winter with a freezing population; so Naftogaz essentially gives Russian gas away to its people for nothing. The big industries pay a little more while the rest is sold, via Ukrainian and Russian intermediaries, to the EU, where most of the profits are made. However, these profits flow into the bank accounts of Ukrainian oligarchs and not into the coffers of Naftogaz leaving the taxpayer to bail out Naftogaz at the end of almost every year.

Is the Kremlin completely innocent or purely altruistic? No, but which global power is? Logically, they want to keep Ukraine close strategically and afloat economically. However, Russian energy subsidies and economic benefits to Kyiv, have been in return, thanked by continuous Ukrainian theft of Russian natural gas and an inability/ unwillingness to compensate Moscow even for far below-market priced hydrocarbons. Ukraine is, essentially, a principal energy miscreant of Europe. Like a troublesome child, Yanukovych, the president before the current one, played the EU versus Russia to maximise whatever benefits he could possibly get from either.

For example, President Yanukovych, had planned to sign an economic and political association agreement with the EU (the Ukraine–European Union Association Agreement), however, in 2013-2014, Yanukovych got a better deal from Putin and sided with the Kremlin, triggering protests in Kyiv. These protests began with EU-phile students but ended up with armed neo-Nazi Ukrainian nationalists overthrowing the democratically elected government of Yanukovych in 2014. The current administration under President Poroshenko was later installed.

As just mentioned, the latest revolution brought to status a variety of Ukrainian neo-Nazi political and paramilitary parties. These groups include Right Sector and Tryzub led by Dmytro Yarosh, Ukrainian National Assembly-Ukrainian National Self Defense (UNA–UNSO), Patriot Ukraine, Social-National Assembly, White Hammer, and Carpathian Sich. Many of these neo-Nazi paramilitary groups have tens of thousands of members, are heavily armed, and are violently indoctrinated against Russia and the ethnic and Russian speaking people of eastern and southern Ukraine. These parties are now fighting combat missions with the Ukrainian normal military and it can be expected any lethal or non-lethal aid would evidently be given to these groups. Russia is not so weak and it is not so humiliated as it once was and they will fight back against what they feel are Western backed Ukrainian nationalists/neo-Nazis. Surely, war with Russia (and for what?) must be a reason for pause and contemplation for the US and its allies.

If the US, during its brief history, can justify countless policing interventions in its near and very far abroad, unquestionably it might try to at least understand the Russian Federation’s interests in events taking place in provinces directly on its borders and once considered its own. If Western diplomats are surprised over Putin’s actions in Ukraine and Crimea one might be forced to consider what exactly their citizens are paying them for. Of all historical certainties, one must be that Russia has generally leaned to the side of protecting other ethnic Russian peoples. How can the US expect anything else when neo-Nazi’s, like Mr Yarosh, with his allies in the Verkhovna Rada (Ukraine’s parliament), are running about with automatic Kalashnikovs and now potentially weapons from the US.

Aristotle said decisions should derive from desire and reasoning directed to some end. In this particular case, what are the US and the EU’s desire? What is their end?

Is it to enter into a proxy war against Russia by supporting the Ukrainian nationalist? This would certainly inflame the conflict, a conflict Ukraine cannot possibly win and for what? It would wholly destroy Ukraine’s economy and the hryvnia, cause the death of far more people, and create a depression in Russia that would probably damage Europe’s economy more than Moscow’s.

What if for some inexplicable reason Russia surrenders, admits defeat, is humiliated, or something to that extent? Will ethnic Ukrainian Russians want to be governed by Ukrainian nationalists, or vice versa? Most likely not, and, consequently, this will also aggravate a civil conflict. Without Russian economic aid and energy subsidies, Ukraine’s economy and the hryvnia will, again, wholly collapse, leaving Ukraine to be bailed out by some sort of troika made up of the EU, the US, and the IMF.

The EU is already having difficulty, amongst a plethora of other things, with bailing out Greece, an economy the size of Missouri. Additionally, the EU is suffering from its own secular stagnation and deflationary problems so it is questionable whether it will be much help to the Ukraine financially. Policy wise, the 28 members of the EU will have to vote unanimously on any foreign policy stance regarding Russia moving forward. With Greece, Cypress, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and possibly a few other member states, already wavering on Russian sanctions, it will be hard to say if the EU will even have a common strategy in the near future.

Best case scenario, the probable outcomes would leave the US, and maybe part of the EU, alone to either: 1) aid dubious Ukrainian nationalists with neo-Nazi connections to prolong a conflict the Ukrainians will eventually lose. Or: 2) aid dubious Ukrainian nationalists with neo-Nazi connections to prolong a conflict with Russia that the US eventually wins; then be left alone to bail-out a Ukrainian economy in total shambles and prop up, according to the World Bank, one of the most corrupt political systems in the world; of course, only until everyone loses interest and Ukraine falls back into the Russian sphere at some point in the future anyway.

Neither the United States nor the European Union has a security agreement with Ukraine. Putin is not a lunatic with a fanatical idée fixe. Nor is he going to march his armies across Europe. He wants respect and regional influence, just as the US, the EU, and most other powers seek and actively sustain. The US, the EU, and Russia have a lot in common and could accomplish much if they worked together on the basis of mutual respect. Let’s try, for once, to think this one through; what is our desire? What is the end?