Ukraine risks being torn apart by forces encouraged by the West and their pro-Russian opponents writes Alastair Stephens
The overthrow of Viktor Yanukovich and his replacement with a temporary regime led by the pro-western Yulia Tymoshenko and Vitali Klitschko is undoubtedly a triumph for the west and a blow to Russia. It is rather more important than any of the other so-called “colour revolutions” of the past few years.
Ukraine and Russia
Ukraine is three times the size of Britain, has a population of 46 million and is highly industrialised. It has always been the bread basket of Russia and the Soviet Union. Kiev was the capital of the first Russian state, and the Russian and Ukrainian languages are closely related. Many Russians have always felt that Ukraine is really a part of Russia, although many respect the existence of the Ukrainian language and identity. Many prominent ‘Russians’ are actually Ukrainian, including the writer Gogol, and Ukraine supplied a number of Soviet leaders, including Khrushchev and Brezhnev.
Strategically, Ukraine is the soft underbelly of Russia and sticks right into European Russia. It is a key invasion root into Russia, most recently used during the Second World War, in which 20 million Soviets died. It is therefore unsurprising that many Russians have never reconciled themselves to its independence. The idea of Ukraine allying with a hostile state – as many Russians feel the west and the US to be – has always struck fear into Russian leaders. They believe that the west wanted to bring down the Soviet Union and use its former states for its own ends. That is, of course, not entirely untrue.
The western powers
The Western powers have always feared Russia. Its vast size and massive resources mean that it is a threat to their domination of the world. It has always been felt to be a potential threat to western Europe.
The US attempted to bring down the Soviet Union through the arms race of the so called “second Cold War” of the late 1970s and early 1980s. The USSR’s internal contradictions were the main reasons for its collapse, but the arms race was a key factor. The US also drew the Soviet Union into a disastrous war in Afghanistan, the effects of which linger on to this day.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the Western powers have tried to push ever eastwards in Europe and from all other directions too. Expansion of the EU and Nato (an anti-Soviet military alliance that should have become redundant at the end of the Cold War) were pushed ever deeper into eastern Europe and the former Soviet republics.
The former Soviet republics
The ruling elites in some of the new states – although mostly the small states, such as the Baltic States and Georgia – welcomed this Western alliance. The states were often wary of the Russian giant next door, which had oppressed them in the past. Most of the former Soviet republics continued to be ruled by similar, or even the same, groups of people, who merely sold everything to themselves and then adopted some democratic clothing.
Some of the southern republics (the “stans”) did this, while others, such as Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, remained dictatorships. It must be noted that the west, when it suited it, was perfectly happy to deal with the dictators. When the US invaded Afghanistan it made agreements with the dictators and used them in its rendition program. The Western powers have acted to cover up their human rights abuses, as former British Ambassador to Uzbekistan Craig Murray can testify.
Mass discontent with these regimes provided an in for the Western powers. The inevitable happened: there were uprisings, and the west tried to manipulate them. This was easier than might be imagined, given the lack of a genuine left or workers’ movement after decades of official “Communism”.
The Orange Revolution
In Ukraine this resulted in the so-called Orange Revolution of 2004. The end of the Soviet Union and one-party rule in 1991 led to greater freedom, but not much, in Ukraine. Many of the old faces remained, and the Presidency of Leonid Kuchma was oppressive.
When he tried to rig the presidential election so his protégé Viktor Yanukovich would beat the challenger Viktor Yushchenko, there was outrage. There was an occupation of Independence Square and new elections were called. Western front organisations had been pouring money and expertise into the opposition for a long time. The result was probably the slickest, most PR-managed revolution ever. Although there were big demonstrations, it was all kept under control. It often looked more like a pop music festival than a revolution.
This time Yushchenko won and made his fellow Orange leader Yulia Tymoshenko Prime Minister. They fell out almost immediately and the government achieved virtually nothing. In the following election the hero of 2010 was humiliated, receiving 5% of the vote. His former comrade, Tymoshenko, was beaten by Yanukovich in an election that observers held to be free and fair.
The West was not going to take this lying down, however, and Yanukovich went on its black list. Nevertheless, the EU was happy to deal with Yanukovich as long as he danced to its tune. And he was willing to do so because he was backed by oligarchs, in particular Rinat Akhmetov, who wanted a balance between east and west – Russia, the EU and the US.
The economic crisis made a balance impossible. The Ukrainian government was broke and needed someone to bail it out, but all the deals came with strings attached. Wooed by both Russia and Europe, Yanukovich vacillated. In the end he plumped for Russia, which sparked demonstrations. We know the end of this story. Russia tried to back up Yanukovich, and the West tried to get him to turn its way. Its tool was the movement on the streets of Kiev.
From the start, the Western media took the demonstrators’ side. The media gushed over the camp in Independence Square, the seizure of public buildings and the patrols of the club-wielding militia. The fact that similar camps in western cities had been banned, beaten and swept off the streets was unmentioned.
They were happy to report on the so-called “dictatorship laws”, despite the fact that similar laws can be found in the public order legislation of any Western country. Most extraordinarily, the killing of ten policemen on the streets in one day went almost without comment. It would be absolutely impossible to imagine if this had happened anywhere else in Europe.
Th Western powers gave all the backing they could to the demonstrators, continually warning the Ukrainian government not to intervene as demonstrators took over more and more of the city centre.
A string of visitors to the square displayed their solidarity, including renowned freedom fighters Senator John McCain and Victoria Nuland, Assistant Secretary of State at the US State Department, who distributed snacks to people in the square. Less reported in the western media is the fact that the square was also visited by a stream of right-wing politicians from eastern Europe.
The State Department certainly had a hand in managing and tutoring the leaders of the opposition. In a leaked telephone conversation, Nuland and the US Ambassador discussed who should do what in a future Ukrainian government. Ukraine was being treated like a dependency, rather than a sovereign country whose internal politics should not be interfered in by other states.
The presence of Victoria Nuland at the State Department is particularly interesting. She was a neo-conservative in the Bush administration and is married to the leading neo-con intellectual, Robert Kagan. She also had a neo-con attitude to Europe, which she expressed pithily in the leaked conversation: “fuck the EU”.
The Western powers are not a homogenous bloc, and it is not clear whether things have turned out as they wanted. However, they certainly want to expand their influence in Ukraine. Europe, or at least Germany, would like to come to an agreement with Russia, its massive neighbour. However, that is difficult to match up with the EU’s expansionist project. It does not want instability on its doorstep.
The US, on the other hand – certainly its neo-conservative section – wants to surround, pin down and harass Russia. Whoever is in power in Moscow is always going to be a threat to the US’s desire for global hegemony. It also dislikes the idea of any of the Eurasian powers getting too chummy, which includes the EU and Russia. It would like to insert between the two a series of client states: as Rumsfeld had it, a “new Europe” to balance the “old Europe”. It is willing to play for much higher stakes than the Europeans, and much more willing to go for complete regime change.
The worry for Europe, and the less unhinged sections of the US establishment, is that they have unleashed in Ukraine forces that they can’t control. In particular, the Ukrainian nationalist far right could, if not controlled, cause a counter-reaction among Russian speakers. In a political scene already brutalised by recent violence this could quickly and uncontrollably lead to a spiral of inter-ethnic violence, as it did in the former Yugoslavia. However, Ukraine is five times bigger than Yugoslavia and strategically more important.
The big loser
Western divisions aside, great power politics is often a zero-sum game, and the West’s gain is Russia’s loss. Russia’s ally Viktor Yanukovich has been ousted, and anti-Russian parties have seized power in Kiev. Moscow’s plans for a customs union, a common economic zone for the states of the former Soviet Union, lies in tatters. Without Ukraine, it is meaningless.
It is not completely out of the game. The new regime in Kiev clearly does not have the support of the Russian-speaking half of the country, even if it does not actively oppose the new government. If the new regime antagonises Russian speakers, which is highly likely given the growth of the Ukrainian supremacist far right, Russia could be back in the game. Already a law passed last year giving Russian speakers equal status on a regional basis, has been repealed by parliament.
The forces that the West has encouraged, in particular the far right, could also create blowback in Europe, causing people to react against Western interference. The creation of a semi-fascist dictatorship in Ukraine could discredit Western powers in Europe as Iraq has done in the Middle East.
Alastair Stephens has been a socialist his whole adult life and has been active in Unison and the TGWU. He studied Russian at Portsmouth, Middle East Politics at SOAS and writes regularly for the Counterfire website.