Conflict Impact

Ukraine As Game Changer

Biswajit Roy

The ongoing Ukrainian conflict highlights the unfinished agenda of the Cold War, thanks to clash of military and economic interests of US-European Union combine and Russian Federation, the nucleus of former Soviet Union. Multiethnic and bipolar Ukraine that has survived its slicing and annexation by powerful neighbors for centuries is now undergoing a veritable civil war between West-looking Ukrainians and pro-Moscow ethnic Russians. The ethnic cauldron has started boiling with the tug-of-war between rival powers over the Ukraine's inclusion in the EU or Russia-dominated Eurasian Economic Union, a forum of some former Soviet constituents like Ukraine. The ensuing violence has torn apart the fragile social fabric in an already divided country. Repeating human tragedies in former Yugoslavia, many families of mixed origins in Ukraine, which have blossomed out of love and harmony down the generations, despite accumulated misgivings and mistrusts among communities, now find their lives shattered by ethno-religious bigots of all sides and standard-bearers of big power politics.

No doubt, the Ukraine's historic relations with big brother Russia, both in Tsarist and Soviet eras has left many scars in its national life across the ethnic lines. The country's farmers suffered famines and mass exile during Stalin's collectivization drive while ethnic Ukrainian language and culture faced suppression under Russian chauvinists in Moscow. But Ukrainians also benefited hugely from Soviet industrialization, agricultural investments, scientific achievements and social security measures. Being the closest neighbors with strong ethno-cultural affinities, Ukrainians' blood ties with Russians have been further cemented in the anti-Fascist war. No other neighbor had shared Russia so closely in paying the most terrible price of fighting the Nazi war machine. The camaraderie between the two people, despite its ups and downs has been part of the collective memory of the post-war generations.

The post-Soviet Russia has continued to be Ukraine's biggest and closest economic partner particularly in energy sector by sharing soviet-era industrial and communication infrastructure along with other ties. Ukraine continues to be a key transit route of Russian national gas supplies to European Union through neighboring Poland and Slovakia. With popular unrest over economic stagnation, unemployment, massive corruption and rule of oligarchs, West-supported political forces have rallied Ukrainians of Polish, Lithuanian and other Western origins claiming that inclusion in the EU would open their gates to the affluent Europe. In contrast, the ethnic Russian majority in most parts of the eastern and southern regions favored closer relation with Russia-led Eurasian Union. The US-EU dismissed the Russian plan as the ploy to recreate the 'evil soviet empire' while Moscow spoke of cementing the new union with 'best soviet values and traditions'. The resumption of Cold War tension at Russia's doorsteps has detonated the tinderbox full of dangerous mix of ethno-politics with economic miseries.

The American precepts become clear from the report of the subcommittee on European affairs of the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, and then headed by John F Kerry who is now the US secretary of state. The February 2012 report titled, 'Ukraine at a crossroads: What's at stake for the US and Europe?' quoted the subcommittee head, Jeanne Shaheen who underscored the electoral legitimacy of president Viktor Yanukovych, ousted by pro-West forces two years later. "It has been 2 years since Viktor Yanukovych returned to power following the 2010 Presidential campaign in Ukraine. Elected in what was considered by outside observers to be a relatively free and fair election, Yanukovych had the legitimacy and mandate to continue moving Ukraine toward a modern, independent, and market-oriented future. "But the senator criticized the Ukrainian leader for 'significant slide on critical issues, including democratic reform, media independence, election standards, rule of law, and economic issues'.

Noting the strategic locus of Ukraine, which 'literally and figuratively lies at the crossroads between Europe [i.e. Western Europe] and Russia', Shaheen focused on the country's importance 'as the energy transit state [from Russia and Eurasia]' and 'as a force in the vital Black Sea region' that has 'made the country a unique and critical player in Euro-Atlantic [EU-US] economic, energy, and security considerations'. Also, 'the country's ongoing transition... market-based democratic system makes Ukraine an important test case for reform in this part of the world'. While maintaining that 'obviously the people of Ukraine will have the final say on the future of their country', the US senator made it clear that stakes were too high for to be decided by democratic niceties since 'the path Ukraine ultimately chooses is important to the United States and our European allies'. "As a result, the United States and Europe must play a more aggressive role [emphasis added] in encouraging Ukraine to continue down the path to reform", the subcommittee chair said.

Still, some people in the American think tanks pointed to the tightrope walking by Yanukovych. Joining the hearing of the subcommittee, Steven Piffer, a senior fellow of Brookings Institution reminded that the mixed- origin leader from eastern Ukraine made 'significant changes for the country's foreign and domestic policies' since he had become president. According to Piffer, Yanukovych made the 'first foreign policy priority repairing what he regarded as Ukraine's badly frayed relationship with Russia. ' Also, 'he quickly agreed to extend the presence of the Black Sea fleet in Crimea in return for a reduction in the price that Ukraine paid Russia for natural gas. He ended a number of other policies pursued by his predecessor Viktor Yushchenko that had angered Moscow'. While it was a red rag to Washington and Brussels, Piffer mentioned that Yanukovych had 'indicated that Ukraine would seek a balance between its relationship with the West, particularly the European Union, and that with Russia'. According to him, "this seemed a sensible course for Ukraine in its current circumstances. Kiev began serious work to complete an association agreement and free trade arrangement with the European Union".

Nevertheless, Washington-Brussels combine has always suspected Yanukovich's loyalties and actively supported his assorted pro-West opposition including the extreme rightwing ultra-nationalists and anti-Semitic Fascists. The public demonstrations of opposition forces were met with increasingly authoritarian responses including arrests of rivals, police brutalities and media censor. All hell broke loose after dilly-dallying over the agreement on inclusion in EU, Yanukovych decided to join Russia-led customs union under Moscow's pressure. A cycle of massive violence between the government and opposition claimed many lives and Yanukovych was forced to flee Kiev. Washington-Brussels hailed the ouster as 'revolution' while Moscow decried it as West-engineered 'coup d'etat'. While there were popular elements, evidences of American role in the upheaval are overwhelming.

The 2013 draft agreement between the EU and Ukraine that the ousted 'pro-Russian' president Victor Yanukovych in Kiev had been over reveals the geo-strategic agendas of US-EU combine. It says that the 'aims of political dialogue' between EU and Ukraine is to 'promote gradual convergence on foreign and security matters with the aim of Ukraine's ever-deeper involvement in the European security area'. It would also 'strengthen cooperation and dialogue between the Parties on international security and crisis management, particularly in order to address global and regional challenges and key threats' [emphasis added, read containment of Russia]. It plans for 'enhance(d) practical cooperation in conflict prevention and crisis management, in particular with a view to increasing the participation of Ukraine in EU-led civilian and military crisis management operations as well as relevant exercises and training activities'. It also speaks of military-technological cooperation. "Ukraine and the European Defence Agency (EDA) shall establish close contacts to discuss military capability improvement, including technological issues". With increasing NATO presence in Poland and the Baltic region, Moscow has reasons to be alarmed about US-EU plan about Ukraine that shares vast border with Russia.

In the economic sector, the draft agreement focuses on energy. The chapter titled 'energy cooperation including nuclear issues', listed priorities for 'modernization and enhancement of existing energy infrastructures of common interests, including energy-generating capacities'. At the same time, it harps on the 'progressive integration of the Ukrainian electricity network into the European electricity network, as well as full rehabilitation of the energy transit infrastructure' etc in order to get Ukraine snapped from Russian gas production and distributional grid. Also it talks of 'the establishment of new energy infrastructures of common interest in order to diversify energy sources, suppliers, transportation routes and transport methods (de-Russification of Ukrainian energy sector)'. Clearly, it's aimed at denying Russia access to European energy market.

The newly installed pro-West rag-tag regime in Kiev has banned Russian TV telecasts and repealed a 2012 law that allowed regional governments to use Russian and other minority languages. Russian president Putin has retaliated by incorporating ethnic Russian-dominated Crimea, a part of Ukraine, into Russia. Using the same instrument of popular will for union with 'motherland', expressed in an almost peaceful referendum, he manipulated the anti-Kiev fears and angers of ethnic Russian majority in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. The Crimean regional minorities, ethnic Ukrainians and Tatars, mostly Muslims, opposed the union. The Crimean peninsula that was part of the Russia since the Tsarist period and continued to be the home to Russian Black Sea fleet was given back to Soviet Ukraine in post-Stalin period in 1954. Moscow has retained the naval base through agreements with Kiev after disintegration of the USSR. US-EU combine has opposed the extension of the agreement up to 2042 by the fallen regime and wanted the base back to Kiev with the plan to extend the NATO presence at Russian borders.

The punitive sanctions imposed by US president Barrack Obama and his allies have not deterred Putin from mocking them by citing the Kosovo precedence. He reminded the American-Western hurry in recognizing Croat and Bosnian independence from Yugoslavia that had triggered the horrific cycles of massacres in the nineties and the secession of Kosovo from Serbia in 2008. Crimean autonomous region only followed Kosovo example, he argued. What he did not say in so many words that his Crimean move was aimed to checkmate the economic and military fallout of inclusion of Ukraine in the EU after Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia in EU. All these former members of the Soviet bloc are not frontier posts for the project to encircle Russia both economically and militarily.

Obama's outcry against Russian disregard of international law, his rhetorical advocacy of democracy, rule of law and faith in free market economy and denial of any US vested interests in Ukraine, did not cut much ice with discerning analysts. In addition to the abovemen-tioned senate report and the conversation between US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and the country's ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffery Pyatt, bugged and leaked by the Russians, clearly exposed what the BBC journalist Jonathan Marcus called American attempts to 'marshal the Ukrainian opposition; efforts to get the UN to play an active role in bolstering a deal' with the 'big guns [of Obama administration] waiting in the wings'.

There is hardly any old ideological factor involved in the renewed proxy war between big powers, despite the dismantling of Lenin's statue by pro-West mob in Kiev. Except, the fact that the anti-Russian raw hatred of ethnic Ukrainians has become useful for the US and EU in their unfinished war for strategic military and market domination. Putin and the Russian state under him has disavowed socialism and embraced market economy. Today's Russia is known as a paradise of crony capitalism and an authoritarian democracy that finds legitimacy with high dose of nationalism, popularly shared by the injured pride of the citizens of a former superpower. Obama himself admitted that Putin was not advocating any 'global ideology'. He now accords a status of regional power to Russia and accuses it of trying to redeem its old glory by bullying neighbors. Clearly, the first black man in the White House wants Putin to behave like a dwarfed rival who would no more throw spanner in the victors' wheel, particularly after Russia's co-option in the elite international club of the G-8 (and expulsion after Crimea's incorporation) and shared role in global conflict management from Syria to Sudan. Putin obviously does not agree to Obama's perceptions and expectations.

Being the largest country in Europe both in terms of size and population that has inherited large part of the colossal Soviet military-industrial bulwark and its veto power in UN Security Council, Russia still remains the greatest stumbling bloc to the complete American-Western control of the continent. A recalcitrant Russia with its residual geo-strategic abilities and its own hegemonic agenda at its backyards- its 'historical areas of influence' -- continues to an anachronism to the US-EU game-plan. Its energy resources, particularly natural gas that meets up good part of Western demands have given it a unique economic leverage vis-a-vis the rival transatlantic axis. The clash of hegemonic ambitions between the two sides over the control of Ukraine's energy sector and the oil and gas reserve in the vast Eurasian zone between Caspian Sea and Black Sea is the key economic factor behind the current face-off.

The US-EU combine's instigation to the violent unrest in Kiev to oust the pro-Moscow president and Putin's retaliation to it by stage-managing Crimean referendum for inclusion in Russia only revealed the ruthless exploitation of the ethnic divide by the both sides. The war of rhetoric continues between the advocates of national sovereignty and territorial integrity at one side and the rights of self-determination for national minorities and Russia's right to protect its ethnic children in neighbor's troubled home. Obama has now pressed a panic button against Putin claiming that the latter is now going to gobble up eastern Ukraine using the ethnic Russian card. Putin and his prime minister have denied the charge, called the incorporation through referendum a Crimea-specific affair. But they demanded federal structure and constitution as the only viable solution for the survival of the Ukrainian state and society.

But the moot question is whether the big powers were ready to leave the choice of merger to EU or Eurasian Union to elected government in Kiev and regional government of autonomous Crimea, and finally to the democratically expressed popular opinion in all regions of Ukraine across the ethnic lines? Did they help all concerned to reach a national consensus, reconciliation between its historic ties with Russia and the divided present? The answer is no. Instead, their collective brinkmanship has rekindled the dormant distrusts among ethnic groups and shoved the fractured country into an abyss of violent conflicts. The monsters of ethno-religious hatred and xenophobia have been released in another blood-stained theatre of the world, which are bound to hound neighboring regions and beyond.

Vol. 46, No. 43, May 4 -10, 2014