The West’s Ukrainian amnesia

russia_bear-vs-usa_eagle-war1Monica Attard reports in The Hoopla on a very recent speech by Russian President Vladimir Putin in which he forcefully puts his country’s side of the current conflict with Ukraine.  I was especially struck by this observation:

The US, [Putin] said, had instigated a “coup d’etat” in February to oust Ukraine’s pro-Russia President Viktor Yanukovich when he reversed his decision to sign up to a trade deal with Europe rather than Russia.

The stance echoes a fundamental point of a long post I wrote a few months ago on the Ukraine situation.  More generally, Attard puts the broad situation in its Great Power context:

Being pro-western is why 3,700 people have died in Ukraine and the country is on the verge of economic collapse. The conflict has always been a question of big power politics – Russia v the US.

And throughout the annexation of Crimea and the fighting, the west and western media has been anti-Russia. Sure there was a propaganda war being waged between Kiev and Moscow as bombs and guns were killing people. But an anti-Russia narrative, co-created in Kiev and the US, got most of the headlines.

In the west, the story was rarely framed as anything other than Russia’s he-man leader flexing his KGB muscles, snatching Crimea when he had no right to, arming rebels to kill Ukrainians and if you believe Tony Abbott, to kill innocent westerners flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur in the tragedy that was MH17. Rarely were events read in their historical context.

Attard, however, doesn’t really proceed to put the events in their longer historical context, nor draw comparisons with an important historical US analogue.  Eastern Europe, especially Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine, has for at least two centuries been seen by Russia as its exclusive “Great Power” sphere of influence.  Its stance is at least as much a matter of national defence and border security as a concept based on neo-imperial aggrandisement.  After all, Russia has been invaded by European neighbours via that corridor three times in the last two centuries (Napoleon in 1812 and Germany during both 20th century world wars).  Through Russian eyes, Eastern Europe provides a bulwark and a cushion against the recent reality of European aggression against the Motherland.

Russia’s increasingly strident re-assertion of its Eastern European sphere of influence must also be seen by reference to the United States’ equally strident and equally long-lasting assertion of Central and South America as its exclusive sphere of influence.  The so-called Monroe Doctrine was first propounded in 1823, drawing a “line in the sand” purporting to forbid any European nation from (further) colonising any part of North or South America. Through the latter half of the twentieth century the Monroe Doctrine was seen (at least by the US itself) as underpinning and justifying a succession of covert military interventions in a succession of South American countries perceived as threatened by Soviet-backed Communist expansionism.

One of the more recent and widely known examples is that of the US-created and sponsored Contra rebels who attempted unsuccessfully to overthrow the democratically leftist Sandinista regime of President Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua.  The only obvious distinction between current Russian interference in Eastern Ukraine and the activities of Presidents Carter and Reagan in Nicaragua is that the former has to date been much more effective at least in military terms (although the Sandinistas were eventually overthrown in 1990, albeit by an election loss rather than directly by US-orchestrated military action)!

It’s worth noting that in The Republic of Nicaragua v. The United States of America (1986) the International Court of Justice held that the U.S. had violated international law by supporting the Contras in their rebellion against the Nicaraguan government and by mining Nicaragua’s harbors.  The ICJ declined to rule that the US had created the Contras in the first place, although that was manifestly the case. The Court  nevertheless awarded reparations to Nicaragua, but the US declined to recognise ICJ jurisdiction and refused to pay.

i wonder whether Tony Abbott will keep all these events in mind when he “shirt-fronts” President Putin in a few weeks time?  Somehow I doubt it.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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Paul Frijters
Paul Frijters
7 years ago

Ken,

one of the few issues you and I totally disagree on! What do you think that the past policies of the US in Latin America entitle Russia to do now? I would say “nothing” but you seem to have in mind the idea that two wrongs make a right, which is weird when one thinks of the devastation that both wrongs involve.

More fundamentally, Russia is simply not a superpower anymore and it makes perfect sense for the West (and the rest of the world) to push Russia to align its international behaviour with the mere 2% of world population and world GDP that it represents. It is not superpower politics, just power politics.

conrad
conrad
7 years ago
Reply to  Ken Parish

I don’t think historical reasons or national pride are at the heart of it, it’s because most dictators (like, for example, the Chinese), suffer massive paranoia and thus their interpretations of anything are often far away from any possible reality.

For example, even from simple observation, we’re talking about a country with large amounts of very good quality conventional weapons, many types of weapons of massive destruction, as well as “non-standard” stuff like legions of IT hackers. Thus, the only people imaginable that can really bother them are those internal to them (e.g., the war in Chechnya) and this is like a fly fighting a gorilla.

paul frijters
paul frijters
7 years ago
Reply to  Ken Parish

Every country can drum up an excuse to invade other countries. There is no shortage of imagined or real historical sleights to feed off and I dont see why Russia’s claims should be good enough to sacrifice the system of national sovereignty for.
Realpolitik is to expect small powers to behave like small powers and otherwise make them suffer the consequences. Europe and the US want Ukraine in their sphere of influence. Europe and the US represent a block of around 10-20% of the world’s population and half the world’s GDP. That block includes Australia so one can use the word “we” to describe it. We want something, have by and large already got it in that Ukraine is now a firm member of that EU/US sphere of influence, and Putin’s further actions only seem to strengthen this reality and increase our arms exports. Behind the scenes, I bet the Chinese are actually on our side with this one too, given how much they value sovereignty, so there is a likely win on that score as well.

Dont underestimate how beneficial the Ukrainian crisis is for Nato, and, in particular, Australia. Russia has united us, once again, so far at pretty low economic cost to us. Australian coal exports are looking good, now that Russia is proving to be unreliable in its oil and gas deliveries to Europe. Why on earth would Tony Abbott want to become nuanced in his outlook on history?

conrad
conrad
7 years ago
Reply to  paul frijters

It’s not clear to me that they will harass the Ukraine for a few more years as they’re basically going broke — The Ruble is at its lowest point ever, they’re spending 10s of billions of dollars trying to prop it up, Russian bonds have hit junk status, and just to make life worse for the average citizen, they’ve banned food imports so inflation is on the rise for things people really need.

Basically, the sanctions combined with low crude oil prices are working wonders, although obviously not quick enough for many Ukranians.

Dion Giles
Dion Giles
7 years ago

The conversation about the Crimea and eastern Ukrainian possessions began with a focus on the rights of peoples to self-determination, in a referendum run by the Russians. It has now veered to geopolitics, with the actual rights of real people airbrushed out. This has buried a right that millions of very brave people including Australian soldiers died to uphold after it was swept aside by the Nazis and Japs. So-called “separatists”, reacting against a Nazi-infiltrated coup regime in Kiev to claim the right of self-determination, are now under violent military attack not from Russia but from Kiev. The only honourable focus for any discussion is on seeking a formula for internationally recognised referenda in the relevant areas. It’s not rocket science. See
*UN Charter Article 1 at http://www.ohchr.org/en/professionalinterest/pages/ccpr.aspx
*List of referenda completed at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Independence_referendum

davidp
davidp
7 years ago

A recurring theme in Norman Davies recent book “Vanished Kingdoms” is that the association with Ukraine (and similarly located areas) with Russia is relatively recent (and short over time) – but to some extent the connection with earlier cultures was badly damaged during the 20th Century.

Ingolf Eide
Ingolf Eide(@ingolf)
7 years ago

Throughout this crisis, Russia’s concrete goals have been straightforward and consistent.

– Those parts of Ukraine more at home with Russia than with the west need to have their fears and hopes respected (ref Dion’s comment). In Russia’s view, the best way to achieve that goal is for Kiev to stop attacking them, recognise their concerns and pursue peaceful negotiations aimed at finding a new modus vivendi. In the meantime, Russia will (IMO) do what is necessary to ensure the south and east of Ukraine retain their quasi independence, but no more.

– Russia has always made it perfectly clear that its one absolute red line is Ukraine joining NATO. It doesn’t need Ukraine within its grasp, just neutral. Presumably even Russophobes can grasp why that might be so.

None of this strikes me as at all unreasonable or demagogic. Indeed, quite the contrary; Putin and Lavrov have been quiet voices of reason throughout this largely confected crisis. One can argue about Russia’s place in the world and its capacity to define and hold significant geopolitical influence, but as Ken suggests, would it not be both more sensible and far easier for the west to acknowledge its hopes and fears, de-escalate and get back to mutually beneficial cooperation.

John Bennetts
John Bennetts
7 years ago

“…Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine, has for at least two centuries been seen by Russia as its exclusive “Great Power” sphere of influence.”

Sure about that? My impression is that at least the first three have had periods of domination by Russia, alternating with others such as Poland, Germany, even the Holy Roman Empire if we go back far enough, by which time the list includes Finland and Sweden. In addition, most of these small countries have had one or two periods of true independence in the past 100 years.

I admit that my knowledge of this lacks detail and I am unable to identify a good reference for this, but the statement about the Russian sphere of influence appears to be a bit too broad. Was the real situation somewhat more nuanced and less certain?

References, anyone?

davidp
davidp
7 years ago
Reply to  John Bennetts

Chapters in Norman Davies’ book “Vanished Kingdoms” provides quite a bit of background on some of these areas – and emphasizes this point.

Dion Giles
Dion Giles
7 years ago

What arrangements were in place before most of the present populations were born is neither here nor there in the face of the right of the people of the regions in dispute to exercise self-determination. There is no excuse not to support this right and insist on a procedure for a verifiable referendum. Think East Timor.

There is also the question of suitable punishment for those who have been slaughtering the residents. Think Nuremberg.

Vadi
Vadi
7 years ago

I find it interesting that everyone glosses over the fact that elections in Crimea have not had any claims of non-genuinity hold, esp. when exit polls by western media confirmed the official results.

The idea that a mass of people want to change political borders shouldn’t be too hard to grasp given the situation in Scotland, Catalonia and so on.