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.

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9 Responses to “The West’s responsibility for the Ukrainian crisis”

  1. swatnan

    The US have been mischief making in the countries bordering Russia for years and are continuing to do so. Putin has made it pretty clear that he has no desire to annex E Ukraine, even though the E Ukrainians want him to. It is clear that Putin has little control of the activities of the E Ukrainians and could stop them even if he wanted to. But the USA has Kiev in its back pocket, and is creating another puppet State along Russias borders; and its all to do with money bribes to stay on side. Nothing else.

  2. Brumanuensis

    I have no love for Putin and this article is quite right to point out Western hypocrisy about previous Russian behaviour. But lumping the Georgia crisis of 2008 in there is wrong-headed. The Georgians started the war and were blamed by the EU’s subsequent investigation – which also attributed partial blame to the Russians. Let’s not forget that the Georgians began that conflict by indiscriminately shelling civilian areas. Hardly exemplary behaviour.

  3. Marko Attila Hoare

    ‘The Georgians started the war and were principally blamed by the EU’s subsequent investigation’

    That is completely untrue:

  4. Suada

    You are aware that what politicians say in public and what they actually do or intend to do in private are often different, aren’t you?

  5. Brumanuensis

    I don’t see how that blog-post rebutts anything the EU’s report said.

    Going through its points:

    1). Regardless of the degree of Russian provocation – which I’m not disputing – this does not alter Georgian culpability for their illegal response, which as the report noted “was not proportionate to the requirements of a defensive operation, while South Ossetia’s actions to repel this attack were in accordance with international law”.

    2). Again, saying “the Georgian offensive did not come out of the blue, but in the context of escalating military preparations and activities by both sides over the preceding months”, does not alter the fact that it was the Georgians who chose to invade South Ossetia. In addition, if both sides were responsible for military escalation, that hardly implies, as your link claims, that “the report rules against Russia on almost every count”.

    3). Insufficient evidence to substantiate works both ways. The Commission rightly concluded that what evidence had been presented was inadequate for proving the Georgian claim. Merely failing to reject a possibility does not imply that the converse is correct. If the evidence was inadequate, then the Georgians cannot definitively assert that their account was proven, because it clearly wasn’t, as the report’s overall conclusions demonstrated.

    4 & 5). I don’t think I or anyone else has disputed that the Russian response was disproportionate, but this doesn’t affect Georgia’s initial culpability for starting the war.

    6 & 7). Whilst accurate, those two points skip over the Report’s finding that the Georgian’s themselves committed numerous violations of international law. It also describes the allegations of genocide as ‘unsubstantiated’ which is slightly ironic in light of point 3 – not that I’m stating that the Georgians did indeed commit genocide.

    8). Again, the disproportionality of the Russian response is not an issue here for determining initial culpability.

    The piece then claims:

    To sum up: the Report rules against Russia on every ground except one. Although it acknowledges the illegality of the Georgian assault on Tskhinvali, it describes this assault not as gratuitous or unprovoked, but as having occurred in the context of a long period of sustained military and diplomatic provocations on the part of Russia, a great power, against its small neighbour, whose fears about permanent territorial loss were very real.

    I’m sure the civilians killed by cluster bombs appreciate that distinction. More broadly, the Report didn’t quite give such a ringing endorsement to the Georgian position. It quite clearly identified provocation on the part of both sides in the run-up to the conflict, including identifing problematic elements of the Georgian government’s approach to negotiating with minorities within their own borders.

    I have no interest in white-washing the Russians, but it seems strange that the Henry Jackson Society, which supposedly favours democracy, are uncritically defending the likes of Mikheil Saakashvili, a man harrassed his political opponents and unleashed riot police, on several occasions, against peaceful demonstrators. Thuggish behaviour is not a vice limited to Putin alone.

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