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The next big crisis? : Ukraine and Russia

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Thomas Davies gives his take on the crisis in Ukraine, and what can be done to resolve it peacefully.

All eyes in Western press and politics are fixed upon Ukraine at the moment, and for good reason. This is arguably the most serious European crisis since the Cold War. At best, it is a political standoff over differencing ideas of national and international politics; at worst, it is the prelude what could be the next war on European soil since the Kosovo war 15 years ago.

Ukraine is even by modern standards a new nation. Despite a brief attempt at independence during the Russian Revolution, Ukraine had been under Russian, and then Soviet control, until 1991 when the Soviet system collapsed at the end of the Cold War and Ukrainians gained independence by popular vote. Since then, Ukraine has maintained ties to both Russia and the rest of Europe, it has been looking to join the European Union and contains a significant Russian minority, now at around 17% of the population and found mostly in the Eastern parts of Ukraine.

The problem began on the 21st November last year, when President Viktor Yanukovych refused a deal to seek closer trade ties with the EU. Protests started small but grew and were maintained throughout November, December and January, occupying Kiev city hall and rising to crowds of 800,000 in the capital.

Image Credits: MAXIM SHIPENKOV/ EPA
Image Credits: MAXIM SHIPENKOV/ EPA

The situation became worse on the 16th January when the government passed anti-protest laws and the first deaths occurred in Kiev. By the 28th the laws are annulled and the Prime Minister resigned, but that didn’t stop the violence, which reached its peak on the 20th February: 88 people dead in two days. Despite a truce brokered shortly afterwards, there was no sign of either group backing down.

Then on the 22nd February Yanukovych abandoned the capital and made a conference from Russia a week later. He claimed he was forced to leave after threats on his life but that he was not overthrown, and denounced the new elections set for the 25th May as ‘illegal’. At the same time, unknown pro-Russian gunmen dressed in combat uniforms began appearing in Crimea’s airports and capital, an area with a high Russian population. And then, as if the international community were uncertain over the severity of the conflict, Russia got involved.

1st March: President Putin is given authority to use force in Ukraine. He claims to protect Russian interests and Russian speakers. The interim government responded by mobilising the Ukrainian army in response and now there is a standoff between the Russians and the Ukrainians. What the international community, myself included, are really worried about is not a declaration of war at the moment, but a conflict sparked that spirals out of control. Russian and Ukrainian soldiers were hurling insults at each other and warning shots were being fired. The situation is becoming more volatile and the longer this goes on the more likely someone is going to pull a trigger.

It will not come as a surprise to many that I oppose the Russian intervention. It’s one thing to intervene in a country where the situation is out of control and you have consent from the people in that nation to do so, it’s quite another to do so without either of these parameters. Yes, Ukraine is more than just a friendly neighbour next door to Russia, it is the birthplace of the Kievan Rus where the Russian Orthodox Church and culture was founded, as well as the base for Russia’s Black Sea fleet, and Putin may well have legitimate concerns in Ukraine but this is not the way to go about it. He could have at least asked the new government before mobilising if his interest is truly to protect Russian interests and Russian speakers. If this is some ironic joke at the West interfering in other nations’ politics, it is no longer funny!

The conflict also for me sparks allegories to a similar event that happened nearly 80 years prior: the Nazis’ annexation of nations in the build-up to the Second World War. I am not saying that that the Russian Government is an appropriate parallel with the Nazis, but that these events have some similar characteristics. Both appear to be acts of aggressive foreign policy, both are about uniting nations with similar ethnic groups, perhaps unwillingly, and both seem a troubling prelude to some grander plan.

Putin had done an annexation in Georgia in 2008, where Russia effectively took control of two regions in the country and maybe that’s his tactic, destabilising neighbouring countries and force them to comply with Russia. Even if he takes one region in Ukraine and no one comes against him, it partially legitimises his actions internationally which is a troubling concept however we feel about it.

Be thankful therefore that this is just a standoff at the moment.

But if this does go to a conflict then we have a problem. From a realpolitik perspective, Russia is going to get away with it because what are the US and Europe going to do? Yes we have the capacity to do something but are we? No. Look at the disparity in leadership; on one side we have Obama who is keen to avoid the mistakes of American imperialism, and the various leaders in the EU who have an economic crisis to deal with, and who rely on Russia for gas and oil against Putin who is possibly the leader most willing to resort to military force north of Kim-Jong Un. Russia is perfectly capable of ignoring most western sanctions and it is numerical superiority that in a war with Ukraine it has distinct advantage before the fighting starts. Maybe it won’t happen now, maybe it’ll happen when the elections happen, but the divide between Russians and Ukrainians is deepening by the day and that will have to be addressed, either by the ballot or the bullet whichever comes last.

What everyone needs to do is calm down and think. We don’t want a war, and I at least don’t want Russia interfering in matters without legitimacy. Bandying pointless words is only going to exacerbate things. In my mind the best thing to do is to wait, for now. Let the elections come round, let the Ukrainians vote in a new government and have a plebiscite on the issue. If they want to be with Russia, be with Russia, if not so be it and can we all accept the result and move on. Let the people have their say and be done with it, this conflict needs not happen. Oh, and if Russia gets out that will help alleviate half the tensions which can only be a good thing.

But above all we need to be prepared; Putin is not high on my ‘leaders I would trust to come up with a peaceful solution’ list, and if conflict happens we have to do something. Russia is a power player with considerable economic and political clout so any action will have to be thought through but I’m concerned about the alternative. The international order is fragile at best and if Russia begins to destabilise it then what’s to stop the same thing happening in other nations.  Although, having said that maybe a massive one-earth government is the only way to survive the next two centuries, since nationalism and personal gain have kept us from cooperating as a species. Maybe I’m just a whining Westerner when I wish that order isn’t under Putin.

I may be wrong about Ukraine, I am a self-professed pessimist when it comes to global and I hope I am proved wrong, it means some of my limited faith in humanity can be restored. But the way I see it either Russia is going to get away with nearly annexing a former Warsaw Pact country or we’re going to have a Syria right on our doorstep, or even worse Russia will begin taking the first steps re-establish its old empire. The crisis continues to evolve and shift but whichever way this ultimately falls the result is not going to be pretty.

Thomas Davies

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