Ukraine crisis: Is the West trying to upset the Russians?

This is not the Cold War. Ukraine should not be forced to take sides, but the EU and US are behaving provocatively on Moscow's doorstep

Is today's referendum in Crimea legal? Kiev says no, because it violates Article 73 of Ukraine's constitution which says the state's borders can be changed only after a plebiscite of the entire nation. Moscow says yes, because Ukraine's democratically elected president was overthrown in a coup which means the constitution no longer applies. The United States and European Union say the referendum violates the UN charter and four other international agreements. But this is not about law. Make no mistake about that.

A welter of bluster, bluff and bogus arguments has been thrown up in the face of what is undoubtedly the most perilous crisis in East-West relations since the end of the Cold War. The violence between pro and anti-Russian Ukrainians yesterday will only increase the temptation for President Vladimir Putin to move troops from Crimea into eastern Ukraine. The West has boxed itself into responding with sanctions against the Moscow elite which look set to escalate. Talks ended on Friday with "no common vision".

Disturbingly, the Pentagon has its aircraft-carrier battle group in the Mediterranean while the Kremlin has moved a column of army trucks into Crimea. We feel on a conveyor to confrontation.

As usual, the West is claiming the moral high ground. The talk is of democracy and sovereignty. A swaggering Putin is portrayed as a menacing bully who seeks to cloud the issue with preposterous propaganda to persuade Russian speakers – at home, in Ukraine and in Crimea – that they are under threat from neo-Nazi Ukrainian ultra-nationalists.

Putin is certainly an unpleasant and ruthless man, but this debacle was triggered by misguided policies in the West. Last year, the EU offered a free-trade deal to Ukraine. It was part of a long-term strategy to entice the former Soviet satellite into the Western orbit, into Europe's economy and eventually into Nato.

In doing so, the EU was poking a stick at a sleeping bear. The hapless Ukrainians – who in 1994 gave up the third largest strategic nuclear arsenal in the world, bigger than those of Britain, France, and China combined – have found themselves pawns in a geopolitical game of chess. They swapped weapons for guarantees of protection by the world powers – which have proved worthless, as Iran and North Korea will note.

The Russians and the West today offer high-minded arguments about self-determination and protection of minorities. But definitions differ conveniently. And principles slip in and out of parallel. Compare and contrast the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan or the US war in Iraq – or Russian tanks in Chechnya and Western air strikes on Libya, the Nato bombing in Kosovo or Russia's shelling of Georgia, or the actions of both sides in the current quagmire of Syria – and the only common factor is the naked exercise of power where the interests of great nations are threatened.

Over the past decade, Russia has stood by as the West has wooed her neighbours one by one into Nato, a strategic military alliance founded to confront and contain Moscow decades ago. Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria are all now in Nato. Ukraine was the last prize.

But Ukraine is not just another neighbour. Its capital Kiev was the "mother of Rus cities" in the ninth century and the cradle of Russian Orthodox Christianity. Crimea has an even more particular patrimony. It was captured from the Tatars by Catherine the Great in 1783 and was part of Russia until, on a whim in 1954, it was given to Ukraine by President Khrushchev.

Moscow views attempts to seduce Ukraine from its sphere of influence much as the US might view a pro-Russian government in Mexico – or the installation of enemy missiles on a nearby island, like Cuba. Last month's coup in Kiev, said one Russian parliamentarian, "masterminded mostly by the Americans" was "an existential threat".

All this, to the Kremlin, violates its tacit understanding with Washington that, in return for supporting the US after 9/11, America would recognise Moscow's "sphere of privileged interests" in the post-Soviet space. Crimea houses Russia's only warm-water naval base. The Kremlin sees US support for anti-Russian factions in Ukraine as betrayal. Might it next support dissident protesters in Moscow?

Hawks in the West may see in that an opportunity. But it would be a hazardous tactic of triumphalism. If the West continues to take a hard line on Ukraine, it will perpetuate the loopy logic that created the crisis in the first place.

The result would be a lose-lose situation. It will undermine the chances of East-West co-operation on Iran, Syria, Afghanistan, and China. It will be problematic for gas supplies to Western Europe. And it will retard the development of a Russian economy which depends on oil and gas for 70 per cent of its exports and whose manufacturing sector remains profoundly inefficient and uncompetitive.

What the US and EU should be doing is looking for a win-win outcome which allows Ukraine to act as both a buffer and a bridge between Russia and Europe.

Ukraine should not be made to choose between East and West. Its natural strength is that it faces both ways. Like Georgia, it should be kept out of Nato to allay Russian fears of creeping Western military hegemony. But its economy should be westernised, much as Poland's has been, to shed the legacy of its Soviet past, an inflexible education system, antiquated agriculture, and a corrupt political culture which indulges the population with unecological energy subsidies. Increasing exports to the West would boost the economy so that Ukraine becomes a conduit for closer mutually beneficial integration between the Russian and Europe economies.

But to achieve that the US and Europe – as well as Moscow – must have the courage to consign their Cold War mindset to the past.

Paul Vallely is visiting professor in public ethics at the University of Chester