Add together the cities of Donetsk, Kharkiv and Lugansk and you don’t reach the economic output of Dundee. World domination it isn’t. Unfortunately both in the Kremlin and on Capitol Hill they, and their satraps, think it is. Neither side cares at all about the millions of ordinary people in the zone of potential conflict.
The spiral of death in Ukraine is very worrying. Following the tragic deaths in Odessa, the ball is very much in Putin’s court. His bluff has very much been called. We will now learn whether he was stoking clashes in Eastern Ukraine and massing forces on his border in order to give a pretext for invasion – which pretext he now has – or in order to destabilize and intimidate Kiev into moving away from relationships with the EU.
This has been a discussion of the deaf even more within intellectual circles in the West than between Washington and the Kremlin, where at least the Machiavellians understand full well what they are doing. But their followers either, on the one hand, deny that there are any far right elements on the Ukrainian side or any CIA assistance, or alternatively deny that there are many millions of ordinary Ukrainians who genuinely want to be at peace in their own country and move towards the EU. They either claim that all the separatists are Russian agents and deny the genuine minority population which yearns for the Soviet Union or Russia, or they deny the existence of Russian agents and special forces in Ukraine, and that most of the Russian nationalists are every bit as right wing and appalling as the equivalent tendency on the Ukrainian side.
First, some history. The Ukrainian people really do exist. They have been a subjugated people for centuries, most lastingly by the great Polish-Lithuanian Empire and then by the Russian Empire. That does not mean they did not exist. Consider this: until 1990 there had not been an independent Polish state for over two hundred years, except for a fleeting twenty years between the two world wars. Yet nobody doubts the Poles are a real nation. I shan’t start on Scotland again …
None of modern Ukraine was Russian until the 18th century, when the expansion of the Russian empire and decline of the Polish took in these new colonies. As Putin famously remarked, it was called New Russia. Yes, Vladimir, note it was New. That is because it was a colony. Just like New York. Because it was called New Russia gives you no more right to it than the Channel Islands have to New Jersey. Ukraine had been Russian seven hundred years before its 18th century reconquest, but that population had migrated to Muscovy.
The expansion of the Russian Empire was exactly contemporary with the expansion of the British and American Empires, and other bit players like the French. Like most of the American, most of the Russian Empire was a contiguous land mass. The difference between the Russian and British Empires, on the one hand, and the American Empire on the other, was that the Russians and British did not commit genocide of the existing populations. The difference between the Russian and the British Empires is that the British gave almost all of theirs back in the post-colonial period (a process that needs to be urgently completed). Russia gave back much of her Empire at the fall of the Soviet Union, but still retained a very great deal more than the British. It is to me inarguable that, in a historical perspective, Putin is attempting to recover as much of the Russian Empire as possible, including but by no means solely by the annexation of Crimea and his actions in Ukraine.
Crimea, incidentally, had maintained its own independent existence as the last remnant of the Mongol Horde right up until the 19th century. Despite the Russian colonisation of Crimea in the 19th century, it still had a majority Tatar population until the 1940’s, when Stalin tried his hand at genocide on them. The Tatars were branded Nazis. Opponents of the Russian Empire are always “Nazis” or “Jihadists”. The deportation of the Tatars from Crimea was only twenty years before the British did the same genocide to a smaller people in Diego Garcia. I call for the restitution of both. Those who call for the restitution of one and not the other are appalling hypocrites.
Equally hypocritical are those who call for a referendum on Russian union for East Ukraine, but not for referenda on independence for Dagestan and Chechnya. It is an irony insufficiently noted, that in Russia to call or campaign for the separation of any part of the state is a crime punishable by up to 22 years’ imprisonment. There are over 7,000 people from the Caucasus imprisoned under that law.
There is absolutely no movement among the large minority Russians of the Baltic States to rejoin Mother Russia, because living conditions in the EU are just so much better. As I have blogged before, it is undeniably true that living conditions for ordinary people in Poland have vastly improved as a result of EU membership, and are much better than in Ukraine – or Russia.
GDP per capita figures for Russia look quite good, but do not give a true reflection of living standards because of astonishing levels of inequality of wealth. This is very bad in the West, and getting much worse rather rapidly, but is nowhere near as bad as in Russia which is the most viciously capitalist state in the world, made worse by its commodity dependency. The Russian economy is completely non-diversified, manufacturing and services are miniscule and it is overwhelmingly a raw commodity exporter in energy, metals, grain etc. That leads to extreme concentration of profit and a lack of employment opportunity. Combine that with mafia state corruption and you have the oligarchs’ paradise. Russia is a gangster state. On top of which, if I were a Russian who campaigned against the Russian government in the same way that I do against my own, I would be dead.
The desire of ordinary Ukrainians to join the EU one day, and move closer to it now, is understandable and indeed commendable. It was also the desire of Yanukovich. Those who claim Western pressure on Yanukovich forget – or choose to ignore – that Yanukovich’s government had actually, quite independently and voluntarily, negotiated the EU co-operation agreement and were on the point of signing it, when Yanukovich was summoned to Moscow by Putin and informed that if they signed the agreement, the energy supplies to Ukraine would immediately be cut off in mid-winter and debt called in.
That is a fact. It was not illegal for Putin to do that; it was perhaps even legitimate for those who believe in a Machiavellian approach to great power politics. Yanukovich temporized, between a rock and a hard place. Ukraine seemed to be at a key moment of balance, hung between the EU and Russia. The capital being in West Ukraine and overwhelmingly ethnic Ukrainian, pro-EU crowds started to build up. Then things started to get wildly out of control.
Were western governments encouraging pro-western groups in Ukraine? Yes, that’s their job. Did this include covert support? Yes. Were the Russians doing precisely the same thing with their supporters? Yes, that’s their job too. Did the Americans spend 5 billion dollars on covert support? Of course not.
Victoria Nuland claimed in a speech America had put 5 billion dollars into Ukraine. I used to write those kind of speeches for British ministers. First you take every bit of money given by USAID to anything over a very long period, remembering to add an estimate for money given to international projects including Ukraine. Don’t forget to add huge staff costs and overheads, then something vast for your share of money lent by the IMF and EBRD, then round it up well. I can write you a speech claiming that Britain has given five billion dollars to pretty well anywhere you claim to name.
The problem is that both the left and right have again, equal but opposite motives for believing Nuland’s bombast about the extent of America’s influence on events. I have been in this game. You can’t start a revolution in another country. You can affect it at the margins.
A military coup you certainly can start. One thing we don’t really know nearly enough about is what happened at the end, when Yankovich had to flee. The Maidan protestors would never have caused a government to fall which retained full control of its army. The army can fail the rulers in two ways. First is a revolutionary movement among normal soldiers – the French revolution model. Second is where the troops remain disciplined but follow their officers in a military coup. The latter is of course a CIA speciality. More evidence is needed, but if this is the second model, it is unusual for it not to result in military control of government. Egypt is the obvious current example of a CIA backed coup.
After Yanukovich we had entered the world domination game. Putin seemed to have lost. The annexation of Crimea was a smart move by Putin in that game, because there probably is a genuine small majority of the population there who would like to join Russia. I have no doubt whatsoever that Putin himself does not believe the 93% for a moment. As I said, the Machiavellian players of world domination are realistic; it is their purblind followers on either side who buy their propaganda.
The Kiev government and the West should have conceded Crimea before Putin moved his troops into it. The sensible thing for the new Kiev government to have done would have been to offer a referendum in Crimea itself, under its own auspices. That would have got the most hardline pro-Russian voters out of the country for good. But by that time, everyone had gone into Macho mode, which is where we still are.
None of the remaining provinces would opt to join Russia given the choice. There is no shortage of existing and historic opinion poll evidence on that. Crimea was the only province with an ethnic Russian majority. The Eastern provinces have Russian speaking majorities, but most are ethnic Ukrainian. I base ethnicity here purely on self-identification in census (and, as I have repeatedly explained, absolutely everybody in the former Soviet Union knows precisely what is asked in the questions of Gradzvanstvo and Narodnosch). Just as some Welsh people speak English, some Ukrainians speak Russian but do not consider themselves Russian. Putin’s frequent references to the Russian-speaking peoples coming back to Russia are as sinister as if we started talking of re-uniting all the English speaking people in the world.
As almost always with colonies, the minority ethnic Russian populations in the East of Ukraine are more concentrated in urban areas. Hence it has been possible in regional capitals to mobilise gangs of disaffected and unemployed Russian young men (in view of Ukraine’s basket case economy there are plenty), and with a slight stiffening of Russian forces take control of town centres. There is a significant minority, and possibly a majority in town centres, willing to support. It is, I think, extremely important to understand that the thugs on both sides are very unpleasant. I have the particular experience of relations with a lot of Uzbeks, and the incidence of racial attacks by Russian nationalist thugs within Russia itself is absolutely horrifying and almost completely unreported. The swastika is a popular symbol among young macho men throughout all of former Eastern Europe including Russia. I absolutely guarantee you that an equally significant proportion of the pro-Russians who have been attacking anyone who tries to show support for Ukraine within Eastern Ukrainian cities, are no more and no less right wing, racist and vicious than the appalling Pravy Sektor thugs included on the other side. We have plenty within the EU – there is a serious problem, for example, with the official encouragement given to commemorations of pro-Nazi forces within the Baltic states which often have a distinctly neo-Nazi tinge.
Putin’s campaign of controlling the urban centres appears to have gone wrong in Odessa, which is simply too large for the numbers of available young men armed with baseball bats to take control. The pro-Russians were badly beaten in precisely the same street fighting they had been winning elsewhere. The culmination of this was the terrible fire and deaths. My expectation is there will not be many women, children or old people among the dead, but also there will not be many non-Ukrainian nationals. I expect these will prove to have been local Russian young men.
Putin now has a real problem. His own rhetoric has indicated that he will sweep in and defend these Russians, but there is one thing anyone with half a brain should have worked out by now. The ruling 1%, the ultra-wealthy, in both Russia and the West are so interconnected with each other that they are playing the game of world domination while trying at the same time to make sure nobody super-rich really loses his money. Hence the strange obviously bogus sanctions regimes. Real stock market disruption and confiscation of corrupt assets would be difficult to avoid if the tanks start rolling in earnest. We may be saved from utter disaster by the sheer scale of global corruption, which is a strange conclusion.
I would like to think the awful deaths of the last few days would lead both sides to step back from the brink. The time has come for a peacekeeping force. Negotiations should be held urgently to make the Kiev interim government more inclusive of opposition elements from the East – and they must oust the far right at the same time. The UN Security Council should then send in UN peacekeepers, which must include both Russian and western forces in close integration, to keep the peace while genuine elections are held. I can see no other way forward which does not risk disaster.