The attitude of the Europe, Russia and US to the situation in Ukraine is one that beggars’ belief: on the one hand, a collective denial that Russian forces are involved, on the other, a collective wish not to see it at all. This is despite the presence of OSCE observers who are documenting the frozen conflict in the east.
This may be because it raises the question of what to do about what has been a spectacular land grab. The leaders of Russia and Ukraine have reached an agreement in Minsk that President Poroshenko cannot present to the Ukrainian people as while it returns control of the border with Russia to Ukraine, it also allows for the Donetsk and Luhansk regions to have a devolved status. Germany and France also backed the Minsk II agreement. The separatists, whom have their own de facto governments in the east of Ukraine, were not present, unless of course we are to treat Russia’s participation as their representation. There is no mention of Crimea, which was occupied by ‘little green men’ in 2014 and effectively annexed by Russia.
In 2014 Ukraine did in fact have many internal problems, including the economy, politics and endemic corruption, and the outcome was the Euromaiden protests and the 2014 Ukrainian revolution. Both were major events in their own right and were enough of a trauma for any country. Nor were pro-Russian leanings in Donetsk and Luhansk unheard of, with the prospect of Ukrainian accession to both the EU and NATO a divisive political issue. Clearly, there were significant problems in Ukraine prior to 2014, but none that could not be resolved politically, and in an environment of political unrest there were political opportunities to be exploited by activists in the east. Yet, with barely the blink of an eye, the Crimea had been occupied and in the east, the separatists were quickly able to take territory. Which returns us to the porous border with Russia, across which military equipment flows, along with a rotation of Russian troops alongside other irregulars whom have joined the separatist side. This is denied of course, despite the grieving families of dead soldiers in Russia and the addition of ‘hybrid warfare’ to the lexicon of armed conflict. Nor is it really seen, as to see it means realising that a major European power is currently involved in armed conflict within the borders of another European state and no one is coming to help.
All of which takes us to the dangerous regional rivalry that has persisted since the end of the Cold War and the explanation for why the Russian government has chosen to interfere in Ukrainian affairs in such a blatant manner. In a nutshell, there was an understanding that NATO would not expand into Eastern Europe, and of course it did, taking in countries that had experienced Soviet domination and were looking nervously to the East. Alongside this was the expansion of the EU, whose ‘soft power’ was also deemed a threat and was also encroaching towards Russian interests. That the EU is not a military power does not allay the fear of the EU’s socio-economic power. The warning signs of Russia’s dismay at NATO and EU expansion were clearly demonstrated in 2008 when Russia intervened in Georgia, a previous candidate for NATO expansion (an ill-advised one). Put in the simplest terms, Russia sees NATO as a threat and has been alarmed at its expansion, enough so to break an important agreement guaranteeing the borders of Ukraine in exchange for nuclear weapons based there. The agreement, guaranteed by the US and the UK, is a rare example of a country with nuclear weapons freely giving up its arsenal.
None of the above excuses the violation of an international border, although it does help explain it. Moreover, the ‘West’ has been served a notice: Russia is back and no longer to be ignored, although how much of this down to the leadership of President Putin is another question. Ukraine’s frozen conflict, with its daily military deaths and the displacement of civilians, is a casualty of a wider stand-off that we all assumed would have been left behind in 1989. Yet it has lumbered on needlessly and has re-escalated. There is of course one rule that has been present since 1945: the major powers will never fight each other directly, nor should they given the potential consequences, but proxy wars are acceptable. This is an unpalatable truth that pervades international politics. It is also a crying shame, for the countries of the northern hemisphere have more in common than international rivalries indicate and there is a great deal of room for cooperation. It is time they cooperated again in Europe. Ukraine is a good place to start, although this is only part of the solution to an unnecessary armed conflict, which ultimately needs to be resolved at the national level.
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Dr Carl Turner,