The struggle for influence in Ukraine.
There are roughly two, interconnected ways to approach the current crisis in Ukraine. The first is through the history and domestic politics of Ukraine and the second via the broader geopolitical dimensions of the crisis. While it seems clear that the first is more relevant for analysing the roots and dynamics of the popular uprising, the role of the Ukrainian neo-fascists, and the legitimacy of the ousting of the democratically elected president Viktor Yanukovych, the second is instrumental in sketching out why there is an ongoing, destabilising battle for influence in Ukraine between the EU, the US and Russia.
Russia reacts to change of power in Kiev
In response to the Western-supported ousting of its ally, Yanukovych, Russia threatened Ukraine with the use of military force and assumed control of the Crimean peninsula. This is in violation of the UN Charter, which bans the threat or use of force in international relations. On 16 March, the pro-Russian parliament of Crimea, in dubious circumstances, organised a referendum on whether to join the Russian Federation. Whatever one thinks of the referendum, it was in violation of the Ukrainian constitution and the Budapest Treaty from 1994, which guaranteed Ukraine’s territorial integrity. This notwithstanding, the referendum had the support of the majority of the population in Crimea, many of whom view the new government in Kiev as illegitimate.
The threats against Ukraine have obvious negative effects on the internal developments in the country. Some of the planned anti-corruption reforms have reportedly been put on hold because of the crisis. It seems probable that the move by Russia will only serve to further strengthen the nationalistic sentiments as well as the neo-fascist groups in Ukraine, which served on the vanguard of the uprising that ousted Yanukovych and were among the winners of the change of power in Kiev.
US Secretary of State John Kerry has come out criticising the Russians for violating international law. Referring to Russian actions in Crimea, he lamented in a Reuters article that “you just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped up pretext.” Kerry’s statement, unfortunately, has zero credibility and moral authority.
Kerry supported the illegal US invasion of Iraq, which has claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands, perhaps even a million, Iraqis and consequently inflamed the Middle East in a sectarian bloodbath. The war was ostensibly justified with the “trumped up pretext” of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. It was Kerry who, in January 2013, violated the UN Charter by reiterating the US military threats against Iran: “We took the initiative and led the effort to try to figure out if, before we go to war, there actually might be a peaceful solution.” In contrast to the widespread condemnation of Russia’s illegal threats against Ukraine, illegal and routine US and Israeli threats against Iran are a non-issue in Western public discourse.
And when Russia went about its merry way destroying Chechnya in the 1990s and 2000s, killing tens of thousands of Chechens and committing egregious war crimes and crimes against humanity, there was far less coverage and outrage in the West compared to Russia’s current actions in Ukraine, which have so far resulted in one Ukrainian military casualty.
Kerry has also supported the Israeli annexation of parts of the occupied Palestinian West Bank in violation of Security Council resolutions and the advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice, the highest judicial body in the world. The current Middle East peace talks are a continuation of this policy as Kerry, who is brokering the negotiations, is expected to give Israel what it wants: to annex the major settlement blocs on the West Bank.
We shouldn’t be fooled to believe that commitment to the sanctity of international law and opposition to annexation is at the heart of Western condemnations of Russian threats and actions against Ukraine. Nor should we simply be content with blaming the Russians for the entire crisis. This makes sense only if we disregard everything that happened before the Russian actions in Crimea.
EU’s Eastern Partnership – a road towards confrontation?
In 2009, the EU initiated its “Eastern Partnership” policy intended to pull the post-Soviet states out of Moscow’s orbit. The idea was to establish free trade areas between the EU and the countries in question, while at the same time keeping them out of the EU. The countries were discouraged from applying for EU-membership, and visa liberalisation, which would make it easier to travel to the EU, was blocked. The EU-Ukraine Association Agreement would have come with further structural adjustment programs opening up Ukraine’s markets and cutting down on government subsidies. In other words, there was little incentive even for the Ukrainian neoliberal-minded leadership to sign the agreement with the EU. It finally turned down the agreement because Russia’s president Vladimir Putin offered a better deal: a massive economic subsidy with no similar strings attached.
The agreement between the EU and Ukraine, which Yanukovych rejected, excluded an economic alliance with Russia, thus forcing Ukraine to choose between the two sides. As Ukraine’s economy is as much linked to the EU as it is to Russia and with the country’s public opinion deeply divided between pro-Western and pro-Russian sentiments, this was a dangerous situation for the government in Kiev – even more so than Yanukovych could have predicted. Stephen Cohen, Professor Emeritus of Russian studies and politics at New York University and Princeton University asserts in The Nation that the trigger for the current crisis was “EU’s reckless ultimatum, in November, that the democratically elected president of a profoundly divided country choose between Europe and Russia. Putin’s proposal for a tripartite arrangement, rarely if ever reported, was flatly rejected by US and EU officials.”
Echoing Cohen’s analysis, Fyodor Lukyanov, Chairman of the Council of Foreign and Defence Policy, pointed out in the Financial Times that “Ukraine’s economic success is possible only if the country preserves access to both Russian and European markets. This requires tripartite consultations and co-ordination. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin proposed such an approach last autumn, but the EU showed no interest.”
NATO’s expansion to the East
Prominent analysts and scholars of contemporary Russia have voiced the opinion that Putin’s reaction to the change of power in Ukraine is connected with the perceived threat of the eastern expansion of NATO. According to Cohen, “the most crucial media omission is Moscow’s reasonable conviction that the struggle for Ukraine is yet another chapter in the West’s ongoing, US-led march toward post-Soviet Russia, which began in the 1990s with NATO’s eastward expansion and continued with US-funded NGO political activities inside Russia, a US-NATO military outpost in Georgia and missile-defence installations near Russia.”
Similarly, Markku Kangaspuro, Deputy Director and Director of Research at the Aleksanteri Institute of Helsinki University, asserts that the main concerns for Russia in Ukraine are security and military policy. “The new government in Kiev has called for Ukraine to join NATO, taken a critical position towards the Russian military base in Sevastopol and tried to limit the linguistic rights of the Russian-speaking minority.”
In 1990, the Kremlin agreed to allow a reunified Germany to join NATO in return for the George H.W. Bush administration’s explicit assurances that NATO would not expand “one inch to the East”. Mikhail Gorbachev was naive enough to take the US administration at its word. Under the presidencies of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, NATO proceeded to expand all the way to the borders of the Russian Federation.
NATO is now planning to install missile defence systems in Poland. The officially stated purpose is to protect Europe from Iran. Even if Iran had a nuclear weapons program or nuclear-capable delivery systems, which it does not, this pretext is utterly absurd even according to the Pentagon and US military intelligence, both of which say that Iran’s military doctrine is “defensive” and “designed to deter an attack on its territory”. As US foreign policy analyst Noam Chomsky put it in an article by Z Magazine, the chances of Iran attacking Europe with missiles “are perhaps on a par with the chances of Europe being hit by an asteroid, so perhaps Europe would do as well to invest in an asteroid defence system. Furthermore, if Iran were to indicate the slightest intention of aiming a missile at Europe or Israel, the country would be vaporised.”
As missile defence systems also enhance first-strike capabilities by eliminating your opponent’s deterrent, one can only imagine what the US reaction would be if Mexico joined a hostile Russian-lead military alliance and installed “missile defence systems” aimed at Texas and California.
NATO also has a long-standing interest in Ukraine, which was praised by Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, NATO’s former Secretary General, as a “unique partner” in the field of military co-operation. “An association pact with Ukraine would have been a major boost to Euro-Atlantic security, I truly regret that it could not be done,” commented Anders Fogh Rasmussen, NATO’s current Secretary General in a Reuters article. “We have real differences and real issues”, Rasmussen continued, “it’s obvious that Russia’s attitude is clearly hostile to the (NATO) alliance opening to the east.” The hypothetical example of Mexico should provide an answer to this mysterious attitude. Another answer is given by Jack Matlock, former US ambassador to Russia, who asserts that Russia might have tolerated NATO’s absorption of some of the former Soviet satellites “if NATO had not bombed Serbia and continued expanding. But, in the final analysis, ABM missiles in Poland, and the drive for Georgia and Ukraine in NATO crossed absolute red lines.”
Ukraine in the Finnish context
From Putin’s perspective, “the United States hardly looks in retreat. To the contrary, the post-Cold War period has brought one long march by America and its allies closer and closer to the border of Russia itself”, as Peter Beinart, former editor of the New Republic, emphasises. When some Finnish media commentators and politicians are more or less subtly pushing for closer integration with NATO, it is also useful to recall the words of the eminent Cold War historian John Lewis Gaddis. He wrote that, “historians – normally so contentious – are in uncharacteristic agreement: with remarkably few exceptions, they see NATO enlargement as ill conceived, ill-timed and, above all, ill-suited to the realities of the post-Cold War world.”
Kangaspuro emphasises that the obvious interpretation is that Russia’s actions in Ukraine are tied to the expansion of NATO. “The only reasonable conclusion for Finland, if we want to preserve our security and stability without military tensions along our borders, is that joining NATO is certainly not the right choice. The NATO accession of the Baltic states have generated tensions with Russia. We are not members of a military alliance that threatens Russia. Joining NATO could cause us to drift towards a conflict with Russia and involve us in a policy that is against our interests. Why should we persist with involving ourselves in this conflict, over which we have little influence, but a lot to lose?”
Kangaspuro asserts that Finland is currently in a good position. “Finland is not a threat to Russia and can’t be compared with Ukraine. We have never been part of a military alliance with Russia and there are no Russian military bases in Finland.”
On a broader scale, the current situation is volatile and underscores the dangers of NATO’s expansion to the East. During the current crisis, the US has increased NATO’s military firepower in Eastern Europe. While it’s unlikely to lead to a military confrontation, sudden escalations and mistakes are not out of the question especially during a crisis and heightened tensions. During the Cuban missile crisis, a nuclear war was probably avoided only thanks to the decision of one single Soviet submarine Second Captain Vasili Arkhipov, who, while under fire from US Navy pursuers, aborted his Captain’s order (who thought that the war had begun) to launch a nuclear warhead in response.
It remains to be seen just how this latest piece of history will play itself out.