Much has been written about Russia, its alleged annexation of Crimea and its alleged provocation of the ongoing separatist struggles in Eastern Ukraine. All those column inches form part of the longstanding demonisation of Russia which has led to economic and diplomatic sanctions being applied and is close to achieving its ultimate goal: persuading Russians that involvement in Ukraine will always do more harm than good.
The arguments used against Russia are, of course, disingenuous. The distinguishing feature of them is that the very same authors who cry “self-determination” and “will of the people” when areas want to break away from Russia suddenly become incapable of understanding these things when the people make decisions they don’t want them to make. This demonstrates what citing such principles is really about.
It is also stated that Russia is trying to reestablish the Soviet Union step-by-step, starting with a large part of Ukraine. This equally ignores the fact that this would not actually be difficult if Russia began with the Central Asian dictatorships, where the whole state can be bought through its leaders’ pocket, or be made into Russian protectorate to get rid of that leader, if Russia had any such plan.
Russia, in its turn, rightly claims that it is already encircled by NATO bases whose weapons are pointed at Moscow and there are more to come. In such circumstances, it does not need to antagonise the international community. It would be assured mutual destruction for the US and its NATO allies to try win any face-off with the Russian Federation. Therefore it would seem on the surface that the most practical solution to the Ukraine crisis, at least from Russia’s point of view, would be to bow to Western pressure and get out the hell out.
Although the Western involvement there means there is no such thing as “letting Ukraine sort out its own problems”, it would be in Russia’s best interests to pretend that there is. But how can Russia do this without suffering other adverse consequences? Is peace at any price ultimately too great a price for too many people?
Russia’s name on other people’s mess
Moscow has got bogged down in the problems of Ukraine as a result of the Western-instituted coup in Kiev rather than its own actions. The ousting of the democratically-elected Viktor Yanukovych led to the violation of agreements concerning the Russian Black Sea fleet and physical threats to the ethnic Russians who have lived in what is now Ukraine for centuries.
Any country would have to respond to such threats, and Russia has tried to do so by helping those Ukrainians who don’t like the new system, just as the West always did behind the Iron Curtain in Soviet times, rather than trying to conduct a counter-coup. It is often forgotten that while the coup in Kiev was taking place Russia’s envoy to Ukraine didn’t say a word about the matter, even though he could have laid the groundwork for military intervention simply by citing the agreements which existed.
So theoretically Russia could cut its losses and go home. After all, it can point to the example of the US doing the same all over the place. Korea and Vietnam still leave deep wounds on the US psyche, and Afghanistan and Iraq are reopening those wounds. Getting out of those places, even if it leaves them devastated, didn’t make the US less of a global power so it should not adversely affect Russia’s international position either.
But it isn’t as simple as that. The US is a long way, geographically, from Korea and Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. It entered these places as a foreign force, and left, or will soon leave, as one. The Slavic peoples of the Eastern part of the country are very conscious of not being Russians but that does not mean that Russians are foreigners to them. Those Slavic people wouldn’t be who they themselves are without Russia as part of the equation, and neither they nor Russia will be able to change that in the foreseeable future.
Different breeds of bear
One thing which separates Eastern and Western Europeans is that the former have longer historical memories. In the West everything your parents couldn’t have seen is regarded as part of “the past”, with nothing to teach the present day. Easterners see more of a continuum, and with good reason, as “those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it.”
In the nineteenth century Tsarist Russia embarked on a number of “wars of liberation” which created the Slavic states we have today out of the former Ottoman Empire. Russia had no strategic need to do this as, all the economic and structural failings which would eventually destroy the Ottoman state were already in place and impossible to shift. It was also considered more of an evil than Russia was, even though the Western powers were often in conflict with Russia elsewhere.
This historical legacy is not part of an irrelevant past as far as any Eastern European country is concerned. Long before the Iron Curtain fell every political move in the former Ottoman Balkans was calculated within the context of what Russia thought about it. Though feared on the one hand Russia was respected on the other. It may not have been the most desirable neighbour but it was the most desired friend.
So Russia can’t just walk away from any East European country. Even the most virulently anti-Russians in those countries acknowledge that Russia will always have some part to play in their affairs because the nature of their relationship with Russia (rather than with, say, Turkey) will always be a part of those countries’ identity. Likewise, how Russia conducts itself towards other Slavic nations is always an issue within Russia itself. Russia wouldn’t be Russia without the “Federation” part of its title, whether that is political in nature or an expression of a common sympathy.
Ukraine presents a fine example of this. Most of its people self-identify as belonging to the ‘Ukrainian’ or ‘Russian’ community, the latter even if they are happy to be part of a political unit called Ukraine which is fully independent of Russia. Ethnically and linguistically, these differences mean very little. The distinction is that someone is Ukrainian AS OPPOSED TO being Russian, or vice versa.
Both sides need the other to exist, always have and always will. This principle is well understood by Ukrainian exile groups in the West, who each regard a different historic Ukraine as the “true” one, and need opponents they can accuse of being wrong simply to further their own claims to being superior.
Russia can’t just get out of Ukraine because it is part of whast makes Ukraine, and needs to be to exist itself. Nor will it expel all the Ukrainians from Russia as a reciprocal gesture. Nor will its energy pipelines stop passing through Ukrainian territory, nor will its ships sail away and nor will its businesses cease to interact with Ukrainian ones and Ukrainian resources, including Poroshenko’s chocolate.
The question is how it can cut the direct involvement of the Russian state to the minimum whilst satisfying the needs of those who can’t sort their own problems out, and are craving greater Russian involvement for this reason. The answer might, in fact, lie in a most unexpected place.
How to make bears smile
Obviously the pro-Russian separatists, most of whom supported Ukraine rather than Russia until the latest Western intervention with its blood letting, are interested in maintaining Russian support, both militarily and diplomatically. But if Russia wants to get out of Ukraine it is another section of Ukrainian society which might provide that way out.
Every Ukrainian, including Poroshenko’s most ardent supporters, is aware that what they have ended up with has little to do with what they initially wanted. What the protestors originally campaigned for has been swept away by other agendas, which have brought other parties in with them and led the country on a bareback ride to who-knows-where.
A wide range of unsavoury elements, which have little connection with the aspirations of the Ukrainian people, has been allowed to float to the top. The Russians know this, so does the West, and so do all the international organisations which are making money out of conflict under the banner of conflict resolution.
The emergence of this element, and the provocations against Russian Ukrainians it has committed, are designed to make Russia respond and give the West an excuse to conduct further action of its own. Official negotiations, such as the Minsk Agreement process, have not worked and are not intended to. They are a mechanism to stall for time and provide a lull in the fighting, nothing more, and again those on the ground do not expect anything more from them.
Both Russia and the West can see what the next step will be, if Russia cannot retaliate. If Russia is forced out of Ukraine various national groups within Russia itself will engage in a free-for-all for who can corrupt themselves the most in exchange for Western support against Russia. The players who have sponsored such activities before, such as the Soros Foundation, are all represented in the Western “peace effort” on both sides of the conflict border.
But the bottom line is – in whose name is all this being done? The legitimacy of the Kiev government rests on the false claim that it was installed by popular revolution and reflects the popular will. You can get a long way saying such high-sounding things, but the deception doesn’t last forever. If the people know differently they pay no attention and regard themselves as victims of the state, even if it does good deeds and they prosper. Ukrainians know that from Soviet times, they know it now.
Russia’s way out of Ukraine is simple. It can protect its citizens and interests by not openly siding with the pro-Russian separatists. Instead it can side with the very people the West claims to be helping – the ordinary Ukrainians who wanted a better life, and now find they are apologists for neo-fascist thuggery, the concerted importation of foreign criminals to their government and a rump state whose only reason for existence is to attack its own citizens, the people it should be providing for.
The Ukrainians who identify themselves as Russian will always look for Russian assistance. Some sort will always be provided. But by switching the focus of its inevitable involvement to those who have been dispossessed by their own friends Russia will undercut the Western position at once. The conditions are ripe for achieving the ideal solution from a Kremlin point of view – the Russians representing the people against a Western-backed government which has sold them down the river.
Russia can offer to work with various European states, and even the US, to ensure that other passports are provided to anyone in Ukraine who feels threatened and wants to escape. This would imply that blame attaches to both sides as we are dealing with a conflict situation. University students can be offered the educational and travel grants already widely available, and Russia can support Georgia’s demands for the extradition of Mikheil Saakashvili and his friends, who no Ukrainian could have voted into office if they wanted to.
Will anti-Russian Ukrainians accept Russia as their protector? If they understand Russia is taking these steps so it can go home, yes. The West won’t attack the people it says it is helping, it has nowhere else to go but accept any proposal by the other side to end the fighting. Conflicts result in strange friendships, as we saw in World War II.
Russia’s way out is to get further in, by helping those on the other side who are increasingly disillusioned with where their friends are taking them. It wouldn’t be the first time Russia has intervened as a foreign power and left as a friend. If it can revive that nineteenth-century tradition it can go home happy, and so can every Ukrainian who still has a home left.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.