Friday, 25 April 2014


A friend of mine summed up Russia’s actions in eastern Ukraine perfectly, saying that it is important to remember that historically the inhabitants of the Kremlin have never tended to do subtle either externally or internally. When it comes to ‘Soviet / Russian intervention’ to suppress striking East German workers (in 1953), the crushing of the Hungarian revolution (in 1956), the invasion of Czechoslovakia to crush the Prague spring (in 1968), the invasion of Afghanistan (in 1979) and the invasions of Georgia (in 2008) and recent events in Ukraine most people would be hard pressed to describe them as subtle.  

The shadow of a gunman...
Orchestrated by the Kremlin Russian nationalist elements active in eastern Ukraine are busy throwing their weight around and the realities of President Putin rule in Russia are coming home to roost.  News filtering out from eastern Ukraine is beginning to suggest a pattern to disappearances as journalists, local politicians, and ordinary citizens have begun to go missing at an alarming rate. The Kyiv Post and the Committee to Protect Journalists have compiled lists of documented cases of kidnappings in the region.

We are where we are because of Russia’s long planned but hastily implemented occupation of the Crimea which followed the collapse of the corrupt oligarchic pro Moscow government in Kyiv in the face of a bloody but popular revolt. The US Secretary of State John Kerry has rightly accused Russia of "distraction, deception and destabilisation" in eastern Ukraine. In the strongly worded statement, he has called on Moscow to help defuse the crisis or face further sanctions.

The  continuing unrest of eastern Ukraine has more to do with deflecting public opinion in Russia away from the example of Kyiv than anything else. That said the unrest in Eastern Ukraine was stirred up after, from the Kremlin’s perspective, a pro western revolt succeeded. The key and as yet unresolved issue remains as to whether the Ukraine looks east to Moscow or west to the EU looms large in the Kremlin’s thinking.

Last month Russia annexed Ukraine's mainly ethnic-Russian Crimea following a questionable referendum in the region which ‘choose’ to that backed joining the Russian Federation. Both the West and Kiev have said that the referendum was illegal and have refused to recognise it. The problem is that the Kremlin’s concerns for ‘Russians in zones of legitimate interest’ posses potential problems for Moldova (including in the Trans Dniester region) and other eastern states with Russian minorities.

For a man originally brought in as a safe pair of hands to safeguard the interests of a clique of oligarchs who made their fortunes plundering the privatised assets of the former Soviet Union while ordinary Russians lost their savings, President Putin sits securely (and genuinely elected with a large popular mandate) in the Kremlin. The President’s popularity is higher than ever, state’s coffers are full of accrued energy revenues, former oligarchs have been tamed, the bear has roared, Russia has expanded territorially for the first time since 1945 and the West’s criticism has been dismissed.

To a great extent we are all still living with the consequences of the second world war and the cold war – parallels between President Putin and the dictators from the 1930’s and 1940’s have already been drawn.  The legacy and legacy of Stalin’s terror continues to overshadow modern Russia to the day. Communist tyranny died of apathy and inertia in the early 1990’s this meant that there were no real consequences for the former communists and the agencies of the communist state. 

There was no day in court to answer for terrible crimes and abuses inflicted on the Russian people. There was no equivalent of a post cold war Nuremberg tribunal to bring the former communist functionaries (including the KGB) to account for their crimes against the Russian people continue to haunt the Russian people and the rest of us. Unlike in much of Eastern Europe the former dissidents never inherited political power the former communist bureaucrats did.

The West preferred to work hand in hand with former communists to saddle Russia the inheritor of much of the former Soviet state with a dubious legacy of privatisations. Now while there are some in the West who are quite happy to admire President Putin’s values the problem with appeasement is not how it starts but how it ends. If the West accepts that eastern Ukraine President Putin’s final territorial demand then we will be on seriously unstable political ground for the foreseeable future.

Disturbingly the modern Russia’s ‘brown’ vote long targeted by President Putin appears to be the home to some extreme views long dispatched to the home of the extreme right wing.  The Crimean Tartars, who suffered deportation at the hands of Stalin and years of discrimination at the hands of the Soviet authorities, now find themselves back in Russia and like some other ethnic and religious minorities at risk.

When it comes to articulating the consequences and realities of appeasement these are the times when we seriously miss people like Michael Foot who would have stated in no uncertain terms exactly what Russia’s intervention in Ukraine actually signifies. That murmur of Munich that drifted through the West’s chancelleries in the 1990’s over Bosnia clearly has not gone away. 

A combination of increasing EU dependence on Russia gas supplies and potential loss of trading opportunities seriously threatens to put the skids under any EU diplomatic response to recent events in eastern Ukraine. If we in the West choose to do nothing , then what message does that send to Russian and Belarusian democrats and would be democratic movements across Eurasia and the rest of the world? 

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