The West’s responsibility for the Ukrainian crisis

The threat of war hanging over Ukraine is the ugly offspring of the West’s longstanding enabling of Russian imperialism, writes Marko Attila Hoare.

The threat of war hanging over Ukraine is the ugly offspring of the West’s longstanding enabling of Russian imperialism, writes Marko Attila Hoare

On the night of 11 March 2000, prime minister Tony Blair and his wife Cherie attended a performance in Moscow of the Prokofiev opera ‘War and Peace’, in the company of acting Russian president Vladimir Putin and his wife Lyudmila. This was part of a high-profile intervention in support of Putin’s presidential election bid that month.

“He was highly intelligent and with a focused view of what he wants to achieve in Russia”, Blair gushed at the time. Meanwhile, Russia’s campaign of killing and destruction in Chechnya was in full swing. The contrast with Blair’s resolute opposition to the similar assault on the Albanian population of Kosovo by Slobodan Milosevic’s Serbia the previous year was glaring.

Those who have demonised Blair as a ‘warmonger’ over NATO’s Kosovo intervention, and particularly over his support for the US-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, have been mostly silent over his Russian blunder. This is strange, for whereas the Kosovo war ended forever Milosevic’s military adventures, the West’s Russian strategy since the 1990s has been much more damaging to the cause of world peace.

Putin claims his actions over Ukraine have been a response to longstanding Western mistreatment of Russia, but the truth is the opposite: the threat of war hanging today over Ukraine is the ugly offspring of the West’s longstanding enabling of Russian imperialism, of which Blair’s Moscow misadventure was merely an episode.

Indeed, the Ukrainian crisis is not the result of Western encroachment on Russia’s ‘sphere of influence’, but of Moscow’s assumption that it has such a sphere in the first place, and of the West’s pandering to this assumption.

With the Cold War’s end, the US under the first President George Bush supported the USSR’s unity under the pro-Western Mikhail Gorbachev, accepting its break-up only reluctantly. More enlightened Western leaders would have viewed the USSR’s dissolution as merely the start of a necessary process of Russian decolonisation, equivalent to that already undergone by colonial powers such as Britain, France and Portugal. Autonomous entities within Russia with a strong case for independence, such as Chechnya, should have been recognised (in which case the status of similar entities in other former Soviet republics, such as Ukraine’s Crimea and Georgia’s Abkhazia, might reasonably have been considered as well).

Instead, the West connived at Russia’s continued imperial role in its ‘near abroad’ – as nefarious as that once played by the US in Latin America or by France in Africa, but looked upon more benignly by many Western liberals.

Long before NATO began expanding into Eastern Europe, Moscow in the early 1990s helped engineer the effective secession of Transnistria from Moldova and Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia. In receipt of generous Western financial support and recently admitted to NATO’s ‘Partnership for Peace’ programme, Russian president Boris Yeltsin in 1994 brutally assaulted Chechnya – left vulnerable by Western non-recognition – thereby taking a wrong turn down the path of imperialist revanchism that would inevitably lead to further wars. Russia was nevertheless allowed to become part of the G8 in 1998.

Western support for Putin’s fledgling regime in its new war against Chechnya from 1999 did not win his gratitude. At NATO’s summit in Bucharest in April 2008, Germany and France blocked the granting of Membership Action Plans to Georgia and Ukraine, implicitly recognising them as part of Moscow’s ‘sphere’. The Russian invasion of Georgia later that year, followed by Ukraine this year, have been entirely predictable consequences, whereas NATO membership has ensured peace for Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.

The West acquiesced in the crushing of Georgia in 2008; the following year US secretary of state Hillary Clinton memorably presented her Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, with a ‘reset button’ as a gesture of reconciliation. With Angela Merkel’s Germany leading the way, Western states and companies continued to pursue close economic and military relations with Russia, involving lucrative defence contracts that have helped build up the Russian armed forces. Last year, US President Barack Obama effectively capitulated to Moscow over Syria.

All this has encouraged Putin to believe he can continue rebuilding Russia’s empire without fear of serious Western reaction.

The current crisis in Ukraine follows the tradition of crises engendered by Western efforts at appeasing or befriending tyrannical states, which are consequently emboldened to go too far – from Hitler’s Germany through to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and Milosevic’s Serbia.

Indeed, Putin’s strategy in Ukraine could have been copied from Milosevic’s in Croatia in 1990-91: orchestrate a separatist rebellion among the minority population in a neighbouring state, then intervene to ‘protect’ it from the neighbour’s ‘fascist’ government, with territorial expansion the barely concealed goal.

Just as Western diplomacy encouraged Milosevic’s aggression in Croatia and Bosnia, leading inexorably to the Srebrenica massacre and the Kosovo war, so it is encouraging Putin in Ukraine. The Geneva agreement involved a suspension of sanctions against Russia but no commitment from it to pull its troops back from Ukraine’s border or return Crimea.

By requiring Ukraine to amend its constitution to devolve power to its regions, it threatens to create more Crimea-type entities in eastern Ukraine that Russia can then swallow up, in turn whetting Putin’s appetite for further imperial adventurism. Then Obama, Merkel and other Western peaceniks may find that the policies they hoped would avoid a major war have had entirely the opposite effect.

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by becoming a Left Foot Forward Supporter today.