Over the past few weeks, as I have followed the events in Ukraine on Western and Russian media, it seemed to me that I was watching two completely different events unfold. The U.S. media’s breathless reporting, focused on the violence in the Maidan (Independence Square in Kiev), making the Russian intervention in Crimea look like a major war and calling for immediate western intervention, is stirring up the American politicians and public into an anti-Russian frenzy. The Russian media, on the other hand, took a more analytic and calm approach. On CBS News, Secretary of State John Kerry said, “You just don't in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped up pretext", the Russian media reaction was, “Seriously, what about Iraq”.
From the beginning, U.S. policy has been to support the opposition in their efforts to overthrow the democratically elected government of Viktor Yanukovich, a government which came to power in an election judged free, fair and transparent by international monitors. This is not unusual as U.S. policy has generally been to support revolutions that overthrow governments it doesn’t like and oppose those that overthrow allies, such as in Iran and Cuba. I am, however, unsure that U.S. policymakers understand who they are supporting.
Who are these guys?
The opposition is made up of a number of disparate groups who, for the most part have differing agendas. About the only thing that they can agree on is opposition to Yanukovich. The “Fatherland” party of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and the Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform (UDAR) led by former world heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko tend to be anti-Russian and pro-EU. The far right, nationalist Svoboda (Freedom) party, with its power base in the Ukrainian speaking regions, hates the eastern, Russian, oblasts of Ukraine and is openly racist, anti-Semitic and homophobic. Another far right movement, the “Right Sector”, drawing much of its support from stick wielding, stone throwing soccer thugs, has been responsible for much of the violence in the Maidan and has warned of civil or guerilla war. They are ardently anti-Russian, but also anti-EU. Adding fuel to this flammable mix are the neo-Nazi, Christian jihadists, who have flocked to Ukraine from around Europe. (See here) These outsiders are trying to form a new Fascist-friendly Ukraine.
This is not to say that Viktor Yanukovich and his Party of the Regions are necessarily “good guys”. When I was working in Ukraine, the Ukrainian businessman that I worked for said to me, “There are a lot of crooks in Ukraine, but the biggest crook is the government”. Yanukovic and his cronies have bled the country dry and have left the coffers empty. However, by supporting the opposition, we will probably be substituting one group of kleptocrats for another. A Polish diplomat told me, “In Ukraine, the government is where millionaires go to become billionaires”. From the actions of the interim government in Kiev, reducing the status of the Russian language, increasing penalties on those with dual nationality, it appears that Russo-phobic Ukrainian nationalists have a lot of influence. As the U.S should have learned from its experience in Syria, but apparently did not, it is very risky to support independent groups over which you have no control. The independent groups may act in ways counter to U.S. interests and feeling empowered by U.S. support, may take more risky actions.
What is the U.S. interest?
While it is easy to understand the Russian concern for a satisfactory outcome in Ukraine, because of close proximity, ethnic and family connections, a military base in Sevastopol, the need for a buffer state against NATO encroachment, it is hard to see what U.S vital national interest is at stake in a small country on the periphery of Europe. (The pundits, claiming that Ukraine is in the heart of Europe, evidently haven’t looked at a map.) Whatever U.S. interests are, they certainly don’t rise to the level of justifying conflict between two major nuclear armed powers.
The slippery slope to conflict.
As this potential conflict simmers, it is ironic that we are currently observing the one hundredth anniversary of World War I. That conflict also began with a small incident on the periphery of Europe. A series of bad decisions by supposedly intelligent government leaders quickly led to a war that killed millions of Europeans. Numerous books have examined the question of how this could happen in the most civilized part of the world that had been mostly at peace for one hundred years. Many theories have been advanced: rigid alliances, rigid military plans, failure of imagination, misunderstandings, nationalism, public pressure etc. These hot embers, however, fell on the tinder of the geopolitical situation and psychological fears. Oxford historian Margaret MacMillan points out in her award winning book “The War that Ended Peace”, “Political scientists might say that the fact that Germany and Britain found themselves on opposite sides in the Great War was foreordained, the result of the clash between a major global power feeling its advantage slip away and a rising challenger. Such transitions are rarely managed peacefully. The established power is too often arrogant, lecturing the rest of the world about how to manage its affairs, and too often insensitive to the fears and concerns of lesser powers. Such a power, as Britain was then, and the United States is today, inevitably resists its own intimations of mortality and the rising one is impatient to get its share of whatever is on offer, whether colonies, trade, resources or influence.” Can we avoid this trap?
Where is our crystal ball?
One disadvantage that European leaders had was that they didn’t have a crystal ball. If leaders in 1914 could have foreseen what Europe looked like in 1918, they would never have made the decisions that they did. Leaders today have a perfect crystal ball. Everybody knows what the world will look like in the aftermath of a conflict between two nuclear armed major powers. Let’s hope that the leaders are looking in their crystal ball.
Photos by NBC News, Russia Today)