Ukraine: Flashpoint for a new Cold War

By Ameen Izzadeen
Who said the Cold War is over? Look at the crisis in Ukraine. It indicates that the Cold War embers are still smouldering, though they are unlikely to engulf the whole world as a major fire, as had been the case prior to 1991 for some four decades, during which the nuclear clock had been often set at five-minutes to zero hour, or even less than that.
The West did indeed savour victory over its Cold War rival, the Soviet Union and its Eastern European allies following the dramatic collapse of the communist empire and communism itself in Eastern Europe and elsewhere. But Russia, the mother country in the Soviet Union, was smarting over the defeat. Though Russia adopted the West’s economic policies with some modifications and controls, it refused to bow to the West which Moscow felt was trying to undermine its security, sovereignty and power. Russia quietly worked hard to regain its superpower reputation.
The growing crisis in Ukraine, which shares a border of more than 2,000 km with Russia, is not without the overtones of the new version of the Cold War.
In the immediate post-Cold War era, Russia was unable to assert its external authority owing to internal economic crises and the drastic fall of the ruble. But by 2005, Russia, aided by rising oil prices and the iron-fist rule of President Vladimir Putin, regained its composure and was able to send a powerful message to the West, especially the United States. Putin’s message – or the Putin doctrine – in a no-nonsense manner told the West: Do not mess around in Russia’s backyard. The message was also directed at Russia’s newly independent neighbours.
The Central Asian countries which were striking military and economic deals with the West in the immediate post-Cold War era took the warning seriously and decided to stay clear of the West. Uzbekistan urged the Americans to dismantle the US military base. Kyrgyzstan was dilly-dallying. Soon it saw a Russian engineered coup, in which President Kurmanbek Bakiyev was thrown out. This was because he had promised the Russians that he would ask the Americans to dismantle the Manas base, but when the Americans agreed to increase the rent and the economic aid, he reneged on his promise, angering Russia. With the new pro-Russian regime in Kyrgyzstan increasing the rent to very exorbitant levels, the United States in October last year announced it would quit the base by July this year.
These developments were a victory for Russia, which together with China has got Central Asian countries in a defence and economic alliance in the form of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. Russia also has a wider plan to bind all its neigbours in an economic union. Called the Eurasian Union, the proposed alliance is Russia’s response to the European Union.
Not only in Central Asia, Russia also scored a victory over the West in its Western backyard. Apart from forcing the United States to scrap a move to install strategic missiles in Eastern Europe, Russia in 2008 militarily intervened in Georgia’s civil war, daring even North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) which had signed a defence agreement – the so-called Partnership for Peace agreement — with Georgia.
Russia, the world’s second biggest nuclear power (after the US) — and the world’s biggest conventional force — strongly opposes its neighbours’ flirtations with the Nato. But, like Georgia, many of Russia’s western neighbours had negotiated Nato membership prospects when Russia was weak and battling numerous domestic problems such as a faltering economy and a separatist rebellion in Chechnya.
Ukraine was one such nation that longed for Nato membership. It started talks with Nato in 1995 and by 2008 it was a candidate that had acquired Nato’s requirements to qualify for membership. But by this time, Russia was strong enough to twist Ukraine’s arm. The Ukraine-Russia relationship is symbiotic, but in Russia’s favour. Ukraine depends on Russian gas while Russia cannot send its gas to European countries if Ukraine closes the taps of the pipeline that goes through Ukraine. However, relations between the two countries were often strained because of disputes over the price of gas and Ukraine’s delay in honouring payments to Russian suppliers. When Russia, demanding payment, cut off supplies, Ukraine retaliated by closing the taps of the pipelines that took Russian gas to Europe. That was prior to 2010. Russia is also Ukraine’s biggest market for industrial and agriculture products while Ukraine hosts a base for Russia’s Black Sea fleet.
However, the relations between the two countries improved with the election of President Viktor Yanukovych in February 2010. He shelved Ukraine’s plans to join Nato and declared that Ukraine under him would remain non-aligned. The Ukrainian Parliament in June 2010 approved a resolution to keep the country out of the process of “integration into Euro-Atlantic security and NATO membership”. However, Nato maintains some low level ties with Ukraine, holding seminars and joint exercises of low strategic importance.
It is against this backdrop that this column seeks to analyse the current crisis in Ukraine.
The crisis broke out when Yanukovych, under Russian pressure, halted moves to join the European Union and instead turned towards Russia for economic aid and cooperation. This was in November last year.
An angry opposition urged the people to join street protests and accused Yanukovych of selling the country to Russia and squandering the opportunity to prosper through the deal with EU. Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians responded to the call for protest and stayed put at the Maidan – Independence Square — in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine. The protest gathered pace when at the EU summit in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius in November last year, Yanukovych refused to sign the EU association agreement and police resorted to use force to disperse the crowd. According to BBC, Yanukovych reportedly told Lithuania’s President Dalia Grybauskaite, who hosted the EU-Ukraine talks, that Russia had threatened to restrict imports of Ukrainian goods.
With these developments, the protesters called for the resignation of the government.
With the economy in bad shape, Yanukovych turned towards Russia and China. In December last year, he visited China and claimed that Beijing had promised US$ 8 billion in aid. The same month, he met Putin in Sochi, the venue for the Winter Olympics, and held talks aimed at striking a “strategic partnership”. Also in December, he met Putin for the second time in Moscow to discuss the growing crisis. While Putin accused the West and the European Union of blackmailing Ukraine, the West voiced its strong disapproval over what it called Moscow’s unacceptable pressure on Ukraine — with the US Secretary of State John Kerry urging the Ukrainian leaders to listen to the people. The White House condemned the violence, while US lawmakers warned of possible sanctions. In a show of solidarity with the protesters, US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland visited Maidan, the nerve centre of the protests.
In response, an angry Moscow told the West not to meddle in Ukraine. Russia also announced that it would write off $15 billion of Ukrainian debt and would reduce the price of Russian gas supplies to Ukraine by about a third.
But these concessions did not convince the protesters. Neither did the agreements Yanukovych reached with opposition leaders help solve the crisis. Analysts say a new opposition leadership has emerged to direct the protesters. This is why Russia strongly believes that the protesters are handled by the West.
In its response to this week’s clashes between protesters and the police – clashes that killed 27 protesters and policemen – Putin said that “from the point of view of the Russian leadership”, all of the responsibility for the bloodshed could be laid at the door of “the extremist forces.” Russia’s Foreign Ministry in a statement described the violence as an attempt at a coup d’etat and a “brown” revolution.
“The Russian side is demanding the leaders on the streets to stop the violence in their country and immediately resume dialogue with the lawful government without threats and ultimatums,” the statement said even as the EU warned of possible sanctions against Ukrainian leaders.
The West also talked tough. President Obama warned that there “will be consequences” for anyone who steps over the line in Ukraine — including the military intervening in a situation that civilians should resolve. He also expressed hopes that Wednesday’s truce “may hold”.
In yet another move, the EU yesterday held an emergency meeting to discuss the situation in Ukraine and possible sanctions that would make Yanukovych a political pariah. Hours before this meeting started five more people died in fresh clashes and the shaky truce with the opposition collapsed. It is also possible that the crisis in Ukraine is part of a Western plan to punish Putin for protecting the Bashar al-Assad government in Syria.
It is no secret that the EU is keen to thwart Russia’s attempt to promote a rival Eurasian Union. A possible solution to the crisis would be a referendum to decide on the issue of Ukraine joining the EU — or for the protesters to remain patient till presidential elections next year. It should be noted that the protesters who are at Independence Square at Kiev are not a microcosm of the whole of Ukrainian society. Yanukovych was elected as president in an election that had the endorsement of international observers. He still enjoys considerable support among the Ukrainian people, though it may be fast waning.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

About ameenizzadeen

journalist and global justice activist
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