Just a month ago, Putin had one of his pet oligarchs, the firmly pro-Russian multi-billionaire Yanukovich, in power in Ukraine. Putin had been to an awful lot of trouble to ensure that Yanukovich got elected. It is undoubtedly true that the United States and its allies funded various pro-western groups in the Ukraine – my friend Ray McGovern, former senior CIA, put a figure of US$100 million on it, and he should know. The resources Putin poured in to ensure Yanukovich’s election were more in kind than financial, but were not on too different a scale.
In earlier attempts to put Yanukovich in power, Putin had in 2004 helped organise massive electoral fraud, and Putin’s secret service had attempted to assassinate Victor Yushchenko. The 2010 election of Yanukovich also involved a great deal of fraud. Russia is an influential member of the OSCE, Ukraine is also a member and that organization is notably mealy-mouthed in pointing out the derelictions of its own members. Nonetheless its observation mission of the 2010 Presidential elections stated:
“The presidential election met most OSCE commitments and other international standards for democratic elections and consolidated progress achieved since 2004. The process was transparent and offered voters a genuine choice between candidates representing diverse political views. However, unsubstantiated allegations of large-scale electoral fraud negatively affected the election atmosphere and voter confidence in the process.”
That is about as close as the OSCE has ever come to accusing one of its own members of fraud. International organisations have their obvious limitations.
Putin had put years of effort into getting the President of Ukraine which he wanted, and he had him. Yanukovich attempted to steer an even-handed path between Russia and the West, while putting his main effort into acquiring an astonishing personal fortune. Putin lost patience when Yanukovich appeared ready to sign an EU association agreement, and put extremely heavy pressure on Yanukovich over debt, energy supplies, and doubtless some deeply personal pressures too. Yanukovich backed down from the EU Association agreement and signed a new trade deal with Russia, appearing on the path to Putin’s cherished new Eurasian customs union.
The west – and not only the west – of Ukraine erupted into popular protest. The reason for this is perfectly simple. Income, lifestyle, education, health and social security for ordinary people are far better in western and central Europe than they are in Russia. The standard of living for ordinary Polish people in Poland has caught up at a tremendous rate towards the rest of the EU. I am not depending on statistics here – I have lived in Poland, travelled widely in Poland and speak Polish. I was professionally involved in the process of Polish economic transformation. There have been a large number of commenters on this blog this last few days who deny that the standard of living for ordinary people in Poland is better as a result of EU membership, and believe life for ordinary people is better in Russia than in the west. I also of course speak Russian and have travelled widely in Russia. Frankly, you have to be so ideologically blinkered to believe that, I have no concerns if such people leave this blog and never come back; they are incapable of independent thought anyway.
Undoubtedly pro-western groups financed by the US and others played a part in the anti-Yanukovich movement. They may have had a catalytic role, but that cannot detract from the upswell of hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians who were not paid by the West, and drove Yanukovich from power. It is true that, when the situation became violent some very unpleasant nationalist, even fascist, groups came to the fore. There is a great deal of extreme right wing thuggery in all the former Soviet Union – ask Uzbeks who live in Russia. The current government in power in Kiev seem a diverse bunch, and seem to include some pleasant people and some very unpleasant people. Elections this year will make things clearer. It is also true that corruption is the norm among the Ukrainian political elite, across any nationalist or ideological divides.
In a very short space of time, Putin went from the triumph of killing off the EU Association agreement to the disaster of completely losing control of Kiev. But for reasons including trade, infrastructure and debt, the new government was bound to come back to some relationship and accommodation with Putin eventually. It just needed patience.
Instead of which, Putin decided to go for a macho seizure of the Crimea. There is no doubt that the actions of surrounding military bases and government buildings by Russian forces, and controlling roads and borders, are illegal under international law. There also appears little doubt that a large proportion of Crimea’s population would like union with Russia, though whether a genuine majority I am not sure. I am sure under these circumstances of intimidation and military occupation, the referendum will show a massive majority. Hitler pulled the same trick.
So now Putin can stride the stage as the macho guy who outfoxed the west and used his military to win Crimea for Mother Russia. But it is an extremely hollow victory. He has gained Crimea, but lost the other 95% of the Ukraine, over which one month ago he exercised a massive political influence.
The western powers will not bring any really effective sanctions that would harm the financial interests of the interconnected super-rich, be they Russian oligarchs or City bankers. But they will now do what they were not prepared to do before, provide enough resources to make Ukraine politically free of Russia. The EU has already agreed to match the US$19 billion in guarantees Putin had promised to Yanukovich. Before the annexation of Crimea the EU was not prepared to do that.
The Crimea was the only ethnic Russian majority province in Ukraine. Donetsk does not have an ethnic Russian majority, only a Russian speaking majority – just like Cardiff has an English speaking majority. The difference is key to understand the situation, and largely ignored by the mainstream media. Without Crimea, the chances of the pro-Putin forces in the rest of Ukraine ever mustering an electoral majority are extremely slim. Putin has gained Crimea and lost Ukraine – has he really won?
The real tragedy, of course, is that Ukraine’s relationships are viewed as a zero-sum game. Russia has huge interests in common with Europe. I hope to see Ukraine a member of the EU in the next decade, and Putin has made that vastly more likely than it was a month ago. But why does that have to preclude a close economic relationship with Russia? The EU should not operate as a barrier against the rest of the world, but as a zone of complete freedom within and ever-expanding freedom to and from without. And European Union will never be complete until Russia, one of the greatest of European cultures, is a member.