Russia appears to have invaded neighbouring Crimea, the historical region currently part of the Ukraine. It’s opprobrium a go-go in the West, as the leading lights of liberal democracy compete to see who can pile the most macho condemnation on Vladimir Putin, the man who, presumably, gave the order.
Geopolitics quickly polarises people. The mainstream media less-than-subtly slides behind the economic and strategic interests of the United States, while even among well-meaning leftists there’s a tendency to uncritically back anyone who the West is currently lecturing, no matter how authoritarian and/or anti-democratic. For the casual observer, this can make it difficult to understand what the hell is actually going on.
Last November, Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych suddenly pulled out of a deal that would’ve seen his country forge closer links with the European Union to make one with Russia instead. This wasn’t very popular in the West, whose leaders almost immediately started chafing for his removal.
The decision wasn’t particularly surprising – Yanukovych belonged to the largely non-ideological but staunchly pro-Russian Party of the Regions, based in southern and eastern Ukraine where ethnic Russians are in the majority.
But it wasn’t just the transatlantic elite who weren’t very happy about the President’s eleventh hour change of heart. Pro-Western Ukrainians took to the streets of Kiev en masse to demand closer ties with the EU. And when heavy-handed policing hospitalised several student protestors, what had been an isolated incident turned into a spreading anti-Yanukovych movement.
In January, the President tried to clamp down on the fledgling opposition with draconian anti-protest laws, but, unsurprisingly, this only made things worse. Protestors fought back, occupying local government buildings in regions across the country.
Yanukovych changed tack, offering prominent opposition leaders top government jobs, but by this stage no-one wanted to touch him with a political barge pole. By February, nearly three-quarters of Ukrainian MPs voted to sack him. He’d already fled over the Russian border.
Over in Moscow, the Putin government wasn’t very pleased about this turn of events. It continued to regard Yanukovych as Ukraine’s constitutional President and attacked the vote to sack him as tantamount to a coup d’état.
Within days, mysterious armed men were sighted across the Crimea region, and it was quite difficult to ascertain who they were. Some claimed they were local pro-Russian militias. Others claimed they were Russian soldiers purposely stripped of all insignia then sent in to secure Russian-speaking Crimea.
Either way, Crimea was essentially in Russian hands – local government buildings across the region were taken over, including the Supreme Council of Crimea, the regional parliament. The latter passed a vote of no confidence against the existing Crimean Prime Minister, replacing him with Sergey Aksyonov, the leader of the unsurprisingly pro-Russian Russian Unity party.
Before long, the Aksyonov regime was proposing that Crimea declare itself independent from Ukraine, then petition to become part of Russia. The latest reports suggest they’re going to put it to the Crimean population in the form of a referendum. It seems likely that the majority will vote to join Russia, which will annoy the West no end.
Goodies and baddies
As hard as some fawningly pro-Western media outlets might try, it’s hard to squeeze the Crimea crisis into the kind of simple good versus evil narrative so beloved by Cold War propagandists and latter-day neoconservatives. The East-West power struggle wasn’t that simple then, and it isn’t now. The only way of soberly working out what’s really going on is by getting over the urge to ‘support’ one side or the other.
Indisputably, though, we can start with a very basic principle – that it’s wrong to invade other countries. Even if the majority of the mysterious armed men who appeared and began seizing key strategic buildings throughout Crimea weren’t Russian troops, which they probably were, it’s implausible to suggest that local militias could spontaneously mobilise on that scale without significant help from Moscow.
A sizeable chunk of the Crimean population is clearly very pro-Russia – 58% of them are ethnically Russian, after all. That’s very far from being a legitimate pretext for an invasion, even a relatively low-key, softly softly one. The legislative wrangles might take decades, but Crimea could win its independence, or even be willingly absorbed by the Russian Federation, through political negotiation.
But it would be naïve to assume that Putin’s main motivation is honouring the wishes of Russophile Crimeans. A lot of Western coverage tries to personalise the issue – make it about arrogant/paranoid/neurotic Vladimir Putin ‘flexing his muscles’, ‘showing he means business’, and generally trivialising the whole crisis by putting it down to some personality defect on the part of the Russian President.
Invasions are wrong – that’s our immovable moral starting point. But in many ways, Putin’s actions can be read as a robust response to some legitimate grievances. Since the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Ukraine has been the biggest, most difficult-to-traverse obstacle standing between Russia and ground invasion from US-backed Europe. As things stand, such an invasion isn’t very likely at all, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be in the future.
As a result, Russian governments have always been preoccupied by Ukraine. And when the country’s pro-Russian President was overthrown, shortly after attempting to strengthen ties with Russia, alarm bells would’ve rung over in the Kremlin. A West-backed Ukrainian government might allow its allies greater military access, severely denting the country’s usefulness to Moscow as a 50 million-person human shield.
NATO, which, twenty years after the fall of the USSR, is still essentially a heavily-armed No Russias Allowed Club, has provocatively expanded its presence further and further eastwards in recent years. Western Russia is now practically encircled by NATO bases from Norway in the north, to Germany, Turkey and Poland in the West, and Kazakhstan in the south.
If Russian army camps kept sprouting up in Mexico and Canada, the US would kick up a globe-rattling fuss about it. Considering how close the world came to nuclear war after Soviet missiles were discovered in America’s Caribbean backyard in October 1962, Putin’s response to NATO’s creeping expansion has been fairly restrained.
Perhaps by snapping off the most pro-Russian bit of Ukraine, Putin’s thinking is that half a bulwark against invasion is better than no bulwark at all. And by incorporating Crimea into the Russian Federation itself, he and his successors no longer have to worry about it politically flip-flopping between pro-Russian and pro-Western governments every half-decade or so.
But regardless of Putin’s motivation, the West has been laughably hypocritical in its condemnation of his actions. In one of the most flabbergastingly unironic diplomatic statements of the century-to-date, US Secretary of State John Kerry declared that ‘you don’t just invade another country on phony pretext in order to assert your interests’. Cue millions of irate anti-war activists reeling off the list of occasions the US has done just that, starting from Iraq and working backwards.
In short, then, anyone looking for a nice, easy, black-and-white interpretation of the crisis is going to be disappointed, unless they’re willing to unplug the critical bits of their brains and accept either side’s blatant propagandising. Putin’s Russia and the US-led West are as bad as each other – both excessively bloated, militaristic, elite-dominated power blocs willing to (often brutally) flout international law in the pursuit of their own strategic and economic interests.
And what of Crimea itself, caught between East and West in the kind of Cold War-style confrontation a fair swathe of the global population hope it’d seen the back of?
A lot of ordinary Crimeans seem raucously pro-independence, and all for the idea of merging with Russia. Linguistically, culturally and politically, Ukraine splits right down the middle, and from a distance it seems like the obvious solution that one country should become two. It all hinges on the proposed in-or-out referendum.
The West is right to question how free any vote can be when there are Russian troops with Kalashnikovs hovering around. Even without any obvious intimidation, their mere presence could sway nervous voters.
On the other hand, even if Crimeans voted to split under the most scrupulously regulated voting conditions achievable, the West would condemn the results as unconstitutional. The US has a dubious track-record when it comes to acting against countries whose populations vote the ‘wrong’ way, from the brutal coup that replaced Chile’s Salvador Allende with the Pinochet dictatorship in 1973 to its more subtle opposition to Venezuela’s United Socialist Party and Mohammed Morsi’s unpalatable but democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
The only thing we impotent observers can hope is that the little people don’t get trampled by this potentially explosive Cold War throwback.