Playing Russian Roulette in Ukraine

BY MUNIR AKRAM

Europe and the United States have successfully encouraged a revolt against Viktor Yanukovych, the inept and corrupt, but elected, Russian-oriented president of Ukraine.

A pro-Western interim administration has been installed in the capital Kiev. But, neither the new Ukrainian leaders, nor their Western backers, appear to have a plan for what to do the day after their ‘victory’. Some of Kiev’s immediate actions — such as banning Russian as an official language — have aggravated the danger of a hostile Russian response.

When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, and the Soviet Union collapsed soon after, the United States and its Western allies assured Moscow that they would not seek to enlarge their military and political influence eastwards towards Russia’s borders. They reneged on this promise, slowly and covertly at first, and openly and aggressively soon after. Most of the Soviet satellite states are now members or potential members of the European Union (EU) and some have been or will be admitted to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO).

Under the erratic Boris Yeltsin, Russia, reeling from the loss of empire, with an economy that had collapsed due largely to Western advice to liberalise it in a ‘big bang’, was unable to stem the Western tide across East Europe.

This strategic decline was halted after Vladimir Putin assumed power, re-imposed economic and political control ruthlessly within Russia, and brutally in Chechnya, and utilised Russia’s oil and gas resources to regain leverage in relations with the West and globally.

For Putin, Ukraine was always a red line. He strongly opposed the proposal by United States president George W. Bush to include Ukraine and Georgia in the NATO military alliance.

Georgia paid the price for its Western enthusiasm by the forcible loss of two Russian majority enclaves. Ukraine, even after the ‘Orange Revolution’, refrained from the Georgian foolhardiness. Its negotiations with Moscow were often turbulent, but never reached breaking point. The election of Yanukovych, oriented towards but not universally loved in Moscow, stabilised the relationship.

Ukraine is unlike any other part of the ex-Soviet empire. It has been a part of Russia’s history for over a thousand years. The peoples of Ukraine and Russia are ethnically, linguistically and religiously related. In Eastern Ukraine, ethnic Russians outnumber Ukrainians.

The Crimea was part of Russia until 1995, when it was ceded by the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev (an ethnic Ukrainian) to the Ukrainian SSR. The Russian Black Sea fleet is based at Sevastopol in Crimea. Clearly, Russia’s national interests are deeply affected by the events in Ukraine.

Russia’s military exercises close to Ukraine’s borders have sent a sobering warning to Kiev and the West. However, fears about Russian military intervention are overblown or at least premature. Moscow no doubt prefers a peaceful solution. It is well placed to secure one.

Russia has not ‘recognized’ the interim administration in Kiev. It still accepts Yanukovych as Ukraine’s president and has offered him refuge in Moscow. The $15 billion financial aid offered to Yanukovych has been suspended. The 30pc subsidies on Russian gas prices will no longer be available. Ukrainian exports to Russia may be disrupted.

Consequently, it will be up to the West to prevent the collapse of Ukraine’s bankrupt economy. The Kiev authorities have asked for $25bn to $35bn in financial support. It is unlikely that even a fraction of this can be mobilised by the International Monetary Fund and Western capitals. Such amounts are not available even to existing EU members struggling with their balance sheets.

The last EU aid offer in the ‘association’ package offered to Yanukovych was $650 million. Nor will the EU become an alternate market for Ukraine’s low-grade coal and low-quality goods which are presently exported to Russia. The net result will be a crippled economy and growing unemployment. Ukrainians hoping to migrate to the West will find the EU’s doors firmly shut. The romance with the West could sour rapidly.

Meanwhile, the political situation in Ukraine is deteriorating quickly. The east-west divide is deepening. Anti-Kiev and pro-Russian demonstrations have already commenced in eastern Ukraine. Ethnic Russian militias have mobilised. There are calls for Crimea’s secession and reintegration with Russia.

Nor is Russia’s leverage limited to the Ukraine. Hungary’s disparaged leader is openly courting Moscow. There are pro-Russian politicians in Poland. Russia’s cooperation is essential on Syria, Afghanistan and a host of other international issues. And China is likely to be sympathetic to Russian interests in Ukraine and Europe.

Thus, the assurances offered by President Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that Russia wants a negotiated resolution of the Ukrainian crisis should be taken at face value. Sooner, rather than later, the West will have to come knocking on the Kremlin’s door for help to stabilise the situation in the Ukraine.

However, events could spin out of control. Ethnic clashes in eastern Ukraine could escalate. Demands for Crimean secession could provoke a cycle of violence. An attempt to seize the Russian naval base in Sevastopol could evoke a military response, with unpredictable and dangerous consequences. Neither the West nor Moscow can afford to play Russian roulette in the incendiary aftermath of the takeover triggered in Maidan Square. Urgent negotiations among all parties to find a solution that accommodates each other’s interests are essential to avoid a new and unwanted war in the heart of Europe.

-the writer is a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN

-by arrangement with dawn.com