We Would Be Mad To Challenge Putin Over Ukraine

Realpolitik... Russia's leased base at Sevastopol in Crimea, a strategically vital warm water port of the Russian Navy. Putin would not wish to see the host country become part of the EU or even NATO. Courtesy: BBC.

Realpolitik… Russia’s leased base at Sevastopol in Crimea, a strategically vital warm water port for the Russian Navy. Putin would not wish to see the host country become part of the EU or  NATO. Courtesy: BBC.

Western diplomats are playing a dangerous game by insisting that the territorial integrity of Ukraine is inviolable and ordering Russia not meddle in this former Soviet republic.

Just this week Barack Obama’s national security adviser Susan Rice said it would be a “grave mistake” for Russian president Vladimir Putin to send soldiers into Ukraine. While European Union (EU) foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said: “We also think it is very important to send a strong message about the territorial integrity, and the unity and the independence of Ukraine.”

Ukraine may be on Europe’s border but it is in Russia’s back yard and there is little doubt that Russia regards Ukraine as being in its legitimate sphere of influence. There is a strong argument for us in the West to accept that Ukraine is, and always has been, within Russia’s ambit. Russia has historic links with Ukraine going back centuries as an imperial power under the Tsars and, later, in the guise of the Soviet Union. Indeed, Crimea in the south of Ukraine, historically Russian since the 18th century, only became a part of Ukraine in 1954 during Soviet rule when both Ukraine and Russia were constituents of the old Soviet Union.

Strategic interest

Because of this history, Russia has strong cultural ties with the Russian speaking population in the south and east of the Ukraine. Many in these regions consider themselves to be Russian and Putin will want to be seen to be supporting their interests. There are already reports that some in the Russian speaking parts of the country wish to break away from the Ukraine and join Russia. How would the Ukrainian government react of if they seceded? How would Russia respond? And what would the West do?

Putin has a wider domestic political agenda beyond being seen to back fellow Russian speakers. He will not want the example of Ukraine to encourage anti government agitation in Russia. If you think the way that Pussy Riot and the Greenpeace activists were treated was rough, then just imagine the crackdown that would meet Molotov cocktail throwing street protests in Moscow. It is not in Putin’s interests and – as he would see it – not in Russia’s interests, for the revolution in Ukraine to be seen to be successful.

But there is another factor that makes this issue even more dangerous. Make no mistake about it, Russia has a big strategic interest in Ukraine. The Russian Navy needs its base in Sevastopol, in Crimea, for its Black Sea Fleet. This warm water port, ice free all year, is a major military asset. Russian warships have been based there for over two centuries. A treaty between Ukraine and Russia signed in 1997, following the break up of the Soviet Union, leases the base to Russia; in 2010 recently ousted President Viktor Yanukovych renewed this treaty until 2042, despite noisy protests within the Ukrainian parliament .

Thinly veiled threat

Threats by Ukraine to review the base lease back in 2005, when the two countries were bickering about gas prices, met with a very frosty reaction from Moscow. The Russian defence minister at the time, Sergei Ivanov, explicitly linked the base lease with the recognition of borders: “The agreement on the Black Sea fleet base is one part of a bilateral treaty, the second part of which contains recognition of mutual borders,” said Ivanov. “Trying to revise the treaty would be fatal,” he added – a very thinly veiled threat.

It is inconceivable that Russia would allow any attempt to interfere or renegotiate this base lease. It is also extremely unlikely that Putin or any successor would allow the host country for this naval base to become a part of the western alliance by joining the EU and possibly even NATO. There is therefore, a logical inevitability to the break up of Ukraine if the country tilts towards the West.

It is for these reasons that we can expect the Kremlin and the various tentacles of the Russian state to be working to undermine what many in the West would regard as a successful transition in Ukraine.

True, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said this week that Russia would continue its “policy of non-intervention” – an interesting definition of non-intervention given recent events in Kiev and the decision to order a major military exercise near Ukraine’s border. But the wording was significant: there was no guarantee that this continuation would be indefinite and he did not say Russia would never intervene.

One way or another, Putin will seek to ensure that Russia does not lose this proxy battle with the West over the fate of Ukraine – even if it means the eventual break up of the country. And we in the West need to face up to that reality and its implications.

Choice

However, Western politicians and diplomats seem to ignore the realpolitik. They appear to believe that the power of our liberal values, moral righteousness and the cause of freedom is more than a match for the might of Russia and the iron will of Putin; and, as a result, they are blindly leading us towards a most dangerous situation.

By wooing Ukraine to join the EU and continuing to insist loudly upon the territorial integrity of the Ukraine, Western diplomats make it more likely that one day we may find ourselves in a position where we need to decide whether this integrity is an ideal worth fighting for.

Since if Putin does act to protect Russia’s strategic interests or ethnic Russians, then we in the West would have to decide whether to take strong military action in response or to back down – a choice between war and humiliation.

All this as Europe reflects on the centenary of the events that led up to the start of the Great War. Madness.

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Sources:

Ivanov quote. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/4562952.stm

Aston quote: http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/02/25/us-ukraine-crisis-ashton-idUSBREA1O0HT20140225

Rice quote: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/ukraine/10657067/US-tells-Russia-to-keep-troops-out-of-Ukraine-as-Crimea-flashpoint-looms.html

Lavrov quote: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-26347042

Base lease: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2010/apr/21/ukraine-black-sea-fleet-russia

Crimea history and handover to Ukraine in 1954: http://www.historyextra.com/feature/complex-crimea

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