Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Putin on a show for the folks...

Apologies for the long break - life, it seems, gets in the way of more important things.

It may be Budget Day but I want to talk about events in Ukraine and the Crimea which have dominated the international news agenda in the past month. The overthrow of the corrupt though legitimately elected Yanukovych Government in Kiev was inevitable. His sheer venality and ineptitude had eroded the relative goodwill he had enjoyed since taking over from those who had orchestrated and then totally mismanaged the original Orange Revolution.

Ukraine should be wealthy and prosperous - instead, it has become a byword for corruption and failure and the opulence of Yanukovych's mansion in the outskirts of Kiev fits in well with the generation of corrupt autocrats worldwide who rule less through terror and more through bribery and connections. In the end, no one will put their lives on the line for such people and once a tipping point has been reached, the once all-powerful is seen to be powerless.

It seemed at the time that all Ukrainians wished Yanukovych gone but that didn't mean the country was united behind the putative revolutionaries.

One of the problems of revolutions is that creating a coalition of forces united in their desire to overthrow the tyrant is one thing but that means bringing on often fairly unsavoury elements. There were and are within the groups now running the show in Kiev some unpleasant neo-fascist types and those whose "western" outlook is not the materialist comfort we would know but a nationalistic revanchism for the days of Ukraine linked to Poland and the Baltic.

In Moscow, Vladimir Putin looked on as Yanukovych was toppled and did nothing but the prospect of anti-Russian elements controlling the Crimea proved too much and he intervened by backing those ethnic Russians in Crimea and eastern Ukraine who didn't want to be ruled by an anti-Russian Government in Kiev.

The political polarisation and division of Ukraine between the anti-Russian West and the pro-Russian East is well documented and the Crimea (settled by ethnic Russians after the forcible deportation of the Tatars by Stalin after 1945 and a key naval area) was the most pro-Russian of all. No surprise then that the invasion by stealth of the peninsula by Russian troops backed by local militias has proved popular and Sunday's referendum confirmed a seemingly overwhelming desire among the population of Crimea to be governed from and by Moscow rather than Kiev.

The Western response to this has been characterised as "weak" by the interventionist lobby but in truth what else could we have done ? It's all very well harping on about international treaties but in truth such Treaties are only valid if it suits all sides that they should stay valid. The British claim to Gibraltar for example is less predicated on the Treaty of Utrecht than on the clear desire of the native population to remain British.

The British position on the Falklands, Ulster and even Scotland is the same. If we encourage self-determination and predicate our position  on the consent of the local population then we should apply the same rules elsewhere. As an example, we controlled Palestine but in the end it was clear the native population didn't want us so we left.

Irrespective of international treaties and guarantees, as democrats we recognise that legitimacy is derived from consent. We obey the law because we recognise the legitimacy of Parliament as our elected representatives to pass those laws.

IF the population of the Crimea, in a free and fair referendum, vote to be part of Russia, so be it. The same can be applied to other regions of the Ukraine and before people get too sentimental about it, the Ukraine is an idea not a real nation. Yes, it's the home of modern Russia if you go back far enough but the Ukraine has never really existed as an independent nation and it was only the break up of the USSR in 1991 that created the Ukraine we know today (including Crimea which has never historically been part of the Ukraine but was transferred to Kiev on a whim by Khrushchev in 1954.

The end game is possibly a de facto and de jure division of the current Ukraine into a pro-western west and a pro-Russian east. It's possible the western part will seek to join NATO though we shouldn't encourage them for fear of creating a new Cold War across the Dnieper rather than the Elbe.

The Crimean business has shown the weakness of the West in some regard but no one, even the most hawkish, suggested sending the 82nd Airborne to Simferopol. In truth, no one is prepared to risk an escalating conflict though some argue that such a show of strength would have caused Putin to retreat. The truth is the transfer of Crimea to Russia probably works best for most people.

For all their columns of verbiage, the hawks never came up with a coherent response to Putin. Yes, they can castigate Obama and Cameron for weakness but no one offered an alternative because ultimately the local population got to choose and it seems they chose Russia.

If he's sensible, Putin will take this success and bank it - he has enough domestic problems without stirring up international issues. Whether the absorption of Kharkov will prove so easy remains to be seen and indeed it may well suit Putin to keep a destabilising element within Ukraine for future political use. It's possible for example that a single candidate sweeping the east will win the forthcoming Presidential election against a divided political west.

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