Mark B Smith: Europe must respect Russia’s historic interests

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IMAGINE this. Europe is one continent. Its constituent countries are free. They have their own national interests, but none of them is a threat to any of the others. All are equal-status members of the same international organisations. Russia, as European as the United Kingdom, is an integral part.

If you can imagine that, you’ve taken a leap back to the end of the Cold War when imaginative statesmen might have built such a Europe. A “Europe whole and free’” as the first President Bush put it, was at least a possible future in 1989-91.

Today’s Europe, far from being whole and free, is divided by a Ukrainian fault line, behind which freedom lacks vitality. This was a crisis waiting to happen: after all, one half of Ukraine looks to the West and the other half looks to Russia.

Or does it? Ukraine, which has only been an independent country since 1991, is built on centuries of Russian, Polish-Lithuanian, Ottoman, and Habsburg domination.

The result is a Ukrainian identity that is robust and complex rather than dangerous and unstable.

True, native Ukrainian and Russian speakers cluster in particular parts of the country, but bi-lingualism is very common, as is the speaking of a mixture of both languages. Many Ukrainian speakers have very close ties to Russia, while many Russian speakers feel strongly Ukrainian. Only small numbers want to secede and join Russia.

Far from being inevitable, the crisis flows from the judgements of decision-makers: Ukrainian political leaders, the Russian government, and the governments of the United States and European Union.

Despite the surprise agreement in Thursday’s Geneva talks, eastern Ukraine remains tense.

Ever since independence, scarcely interrupted by the Orange Revolution of 2004-5, wildly rich oligarchs have controlled Ukrainian politics and business.

They have played to regional power bases. The present crisis, which grew out of a false choice between an EU trade agreement and Russian economic aid, is a product of bad politics, not irreconcilable cultural differences.

Ukraine’s new government, in power since President Yanukovich was toppled in February, can’t control its own territory. Fearing Russia, it has lost Crimea and lacks authority in the country’s far East. But it projects an image of Ukraine that antagonises Russian-leaning citizens, making conflict more likely.

And its nervous military incursions into towns dominated by pro-Russian irregulars look incompetent.

Russia has exploited, even provoked, the situation. Annexing Crimea was recklessly opportunistic.

Western leaders, meanwhile, talk of foreign affairs as if they were fairytales: Ukrainian freedom fighters versus Vladimir Putin. But fairytales don’t explain the far-right Svoboda Party ministers in Ukraine’s coalition government, the neo-fascist streetfighters of the Right Sector who help make the anti-Russian case, and the complexities of Ukrainian national identity.

Elite-targeted sanctions are perhaps the West’s only feasible direct response, but how early were compromises explored, such as a federal Ukraine with laws to protect the Russian language and its speakers, and a constitutional brake on membership of the EU, Nato or the Russian-dominated Eurasian Customs Union?

But there’s nothing new about flawed Western policy towards the former Soviet Union.

The end of the Cold War and the Soviet collapse caused great trauma in Russia and Ukraine alike: political revolution, economic catastrophe, crime epidemics, public health failures, spectacular corruption, and, for many, the lonely struggle of living in a world that no longer made any sense. In Russian ears especially, Western responses sounded triumphalist, arrogant and hypocritical.

Take Nato. In 1989-90, Mikhail Gorbachev and George Bush Senior apparently agreed that Nato would expand no further eastwards than East Germany. Later, responding to requests from Poland, the Baltic States and others, Nato and EU leaders pushed their borders ever closer to Russia. Washington and Brussels seemed to bet not on Moscow but on Warsaw, Prague, and Riga – and now on Kiev. Whatever you think about Putin, any Russian government would eventually lose patience.

If we are ever to have a Europe whole and free, it must contain the Ukraine that ordinary Ukrainians want and that Russia can accept. That’s not the Ukraine of the cynical calculations of Ukrainian oligarch-politicians, or the best-case scenarios of Putin’s advisers, or the fond imaginations of Western idealists and Nato strategists.

And it must be a Europe that respects Russia’s historic interests. Russia is nothing if not a European power.

What’s the long-term alternative? A Russia – armed with thousands of nuclear warheads – that sees its future looking East to China, rather than West to us?

* Mark B. Smith is a lecturer in modern history at the University of Leeds and the author of the blog beyondthekremlin.wordpress.com