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

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

KS1 Primary Teacher

£100 - £150 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Qualified KS1 Supply Teacher re...

KS2 Teaching Supply Wakefield

£140 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Qualified KS2 Supply Teacher r...

Year 1/2 Teacher

£130 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Qualified KS1 Teacher required,...

Primary Teachers Needed for Supply in Wakefield

£140 - £160 per annum: Randstad Education Leeds: Qualified KS1&2 Supply Te...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Residents of the Gravesham constituency are 10 times closer to what Peter Hain scorns as the “Westminster elite” than are those of Linlithgow and East Falkirk  

Will no one stop the march of localism?

Jonathan Meades
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam