Our Second Cold War?: Fault Lines in the Ukrainian Borderlands

(Originally published 1 March, 2014) 

Tensions are increasing in Eastern Ukraine. What could be the worst case scenario for Ukraine and Europe should the crisis in Crimea escalate? Our we heading towards a Second Cold War? The last thing that Russia, the EU, NATO and Europe would need is a civil war in the centre of Europe and indeed potentially provoke the first European war of this century orchestrated by the muscle of Russia and the United States. 

The situation has deteriorated substantially. A Russian intervention is well underway as seen by the occupation of Crimean government headquarters and the occupation of key airports on the peninsula which are key for potential military operations. The unknown armed men, despite not possessing insignia’s, carry Russian weapons and sophisticated weaponry commonly seen on elite combat troops. Technically speaking under a 2010 deal Russia are allowed to station troops, warships and military aircraft in the region. However the use of them to occupy what is legitimate Ukrainian political headquarters and airports such as Sevestapol and Simferopol is not part of that deal. 6,000 – 9,000 troops are now expected to be on the Crimean peninsula in a ‘limited’ operation despite large forces were conducting military exercises mere days ago on the border of Ukraine. Simply put The build-up of Russia’s military in Crimea was evident even before Saturday’s vote in Moscow to send extra troops.

Putin’s approved decision by the upper house of the Russian parliament to using Russian troops in Ukraine could have serious ramifications not just for Russian foreign policy, a massive step back from their triumph in Syria as ‘peace-keepers’ following the devastating use of chemical weapons in August 2013, but also for the entire region of Eastern Europe.

Not only is Putin safeguarding Russian citizens in Crimea, he wants to use troops in Ukraine. It is not only a violation of Ukrainian sovereignty, it is a violation against the revolution that should strictly be handled by Ukraine, not Russia despite the removal of the puppet and former president Viktor Yanukovich. The United Nations is utterly powerless much like it was in the invasion of Iraq by the United States and the United Kingdom. However after acting unilaterally they have found it difficult to eject from the mess they created in Iraq.

Putin says the move is needed to protect ethnic Russians & the personnel of a Russian military base in Ukraine’s strategic region of Crimea. National interests are certainly vested in the region, but to suggest such aggressive words as military intervention and occupying territory in Ukraine including their airports is taking one step to far in issues that must be solved diplomatically for the good of Ukraine and the wider region. Evacuation of Russian civilians should be the limit to which the Russian should interfere in the crisis, any steps further should dealt with including economic sanctions and even military action should diplomacy fail.  In diplomatic terms Crimea should be given further autonomy, even independence if it prevents a wider conflict, this is far better then Ukraine engaging with the Russian bear who though powerful don’t need a new military adventure economically or politically.

It appears that realistically Putin is using the Crimea as a pretext to intervene in the crisis on Russia’s doorstep, this could potentially lead to the re-establishment of Putin’s crony Yanukovich who yesterday delivered a press conference with the Ukrainian flags behind him, a clear emphasis on the fact that he still regards himself as the president of the country. Make no mistake he was ousted under exceptional circumstances in the wake of the battle of Independence Square where he massacred more than eighty of his own people. No leader, no politician in any decent European country would wreak such havoc to stay in power or be expected to stay in power in the wake of such crimes. He may have been ‘fairly’ elected but what kind of civilized leader orders snipers to shoot his own people and expect that he can still claim rights to lead a democratic government. The statement ‘A bandit coup’ is still unconvincing Mr Yanukovich. He is acting a catalyst for the crisis, fanning the flames by stating that “Russia should, and is obliged, to act.’ 

Putin suffered a bad blow, one that saw a Ukrainian revolution by western sympathisers remove corrupt Yanukovich from power last weekend and his Olympic Games overshadowed by events happening in Ukraine. Putin has been left swaying by the Ukrainian people’s decision (for the most part) to place their revolution on the road towards so called Western economic and political customs. However Russian is widely spoken in parts of the east and south of Ukraine . In some areas, including the Crimean peninsula, it is the main language. In western regions – closer to Europe – Ukrainian is the main language and many of the people identify with Central Europe.

The ties between the countries are close culturally and economically, but their history is very much strained following the atrocities of the Soviet Union and how badly the country was ravaged by World War II. The former I refer to in particular was the orchestration of the Holodomer (death by starvation) by Joseph Stalin on the Ukrainian people which some have claimed was a genocide orchestrated by Stalin to eradicate Ukrainian nationalism under the guise of the collectivisation of the peasantry and Soviet industrialisation as rural households entered collective farms with their land, livestock, and other assets. Five to seven million people were believed to have starved to death in Ukraine, and the atrocities of Stalin marked the lowest depths to which Ukrainian-Russo relations could sink. This was hardly helped by the Ukrainians who chose to align with the murderous regime of the Nazi’s and fascist ideologies.

The country is undergoing a seismic shift, cracks are fast appearing in the landscape, it is likely that Ukraine is heading for a major confrontation with Russia, a confrontation which has already begun in the Crimea. Civil war is also a significant threat to the country’s stability as splits are also emerging between the Ukrainian people as to who should rule the country and who should be a part of it.

The Kremlin’s excuses for intervention are shallow at best, unconvincing and a poor choice of strategy. They are underestimating the reaction of the Ukrainian’s, particular those who favour merging with the EU and Western values, and not just them the nationalists, ultra-nationalists, and far-right groups. The Right Sector are already calling for a mobilisation against the invasion and the Interim Government has placed the Ukrainian military on combat alert.

The reaction of the United States, NATO and the EU are of equal importance. Barack Obama has made it quite clear that any violation of Ukrainian sovereignty will damage regional stability. Will NATO stand for a military intervention? Will they abandon those who favour closer links with Europe? It seems highly unlikely.  Turning away would be a victory for Putin, the Ukrainian people’s loss of faith in the West, and turning away from a clear violation of international law. The problem is that Putin can point to U.S.A aggression in Syria and the current state of Iraq. Putin  has been, in recent days, a few steps ahead of the West after swaying in the wake of the revolution in Kiev, however this military action may allude to ‘last resort’, sheer desperation to maintain control of Ukraine and key satellite states of Russia. His actions are fast pushing us towards a Second Cold War as the chasm in the relationship between the Russian Federation and NATO widens. Realistically the White House has limited options geographically and politically as  the public demands a withdrawal from the world stage militarily.

The Ukrainian borderlands is fast becoming a potent tinderbox. All it takes is an individual or group on either side to light it and Ukraine may be split by civil war. As it stands this is Putin’s potential fire in this stand-off, his restraint and subtlety shown so audaciously in Syria in September 2013  a speck on the horizon. However Russia are acting like the United States and any other big player would if their ‘national interests’ are under threat, so we should see these as political calculation, rather a throwback to the Hitler's annexation of Czechoslovakia. That is Russia’s defence.

Matthew Williams