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Michael Jansen: Paranoia over Ukraine
March 10, 2014
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The US would be outraged if Russia were to propose a military alliance or free trade agreement with Canada while Britain would be on the defensive if Russia promoted such ties with a breakaway Scotland. Washington and London all too clearly do not understand that Ukraine, the largest country in Europe, lies within Russia’s legitimate sphere of influence. Offering Kiev financial and other inducements to join the European Union (EU) or Nato is certain to infuriate Moscow.

It must be recalled that Washington became totally paranoid when Cuba fell to Fidel Castro and his Communist revolutionaries in 1959 even though there was no land connection between the countries and Cuba is a tiny Caribbean island that on its own could never threaten the cross-continental US.

Moscow has become paranoid about Ukraine, which is closely connected to Russia by land, for many reasons.

The first is geographic. Ukraine is a key part of a strategic barrier between “Mother Russia” and Western Europe. This barrier includes Moldova, Belarus, Georgia and Armenia. Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, all former members of the Eastern Bloc during the Soviet era, have already aligned themselves with the West.

For centuries Russia had been largely isolated from Europe and when the Communists took over after World War I, Russia was ostracised, demonised and surrounded by hostile powers. This has given Moscow a Cold War mentality which has not been not shaken since the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1989.

Secondly, Russia has major strategic and economic interests in Ukraine, including the warm water port at Sevastopol in the Crimea where the Russian Black Sea fleet is based and the natural gas pipelines which cross Ukraine’s territory to reach Western Europe. Ukrainian mines and industries provide Russia with raw materials and manufactured goods while Russia earns large sums from the export of natural gas to Ukraine.

Thirdly, more than 17 per cent of the citizens of Ukraine are ethnic Russians. Although this percentage appears small, most of the Russians live in the east of the country, with a concentration in the Crimean peninsula. Furthermore, nearly 30 per cent of the population speak Russian as their first language. Russian has been declared an official language in towns, cities and villages across the country. The Crimea has the lowest percentage — 10 per cent — of native Ukrainian speakers. Russian speakers constitute 77 per cent of the Crimean population with Crimean Tatars constituting 11.4 per cent. Between 68-74 per cent of people in two other provinces in the south east also speak Russian as their first language while between 41-44 per cent speak Russian in other southern provinces.

Fourthly, the majority of Ukrainians are Orthodox Christians and at least half belong to the branch of the church under the Moscow patriarch.

Finally, there is an ancient historical connection between the Ukrainian and Russian peoples. There has been a great deal of intermarriage and ethnic Ukrainians and ethnic Russians have migrated from one country to the other for education and in search of jobs and business.

When Georgia — another country along the barrier — attempted to realign itself with the European Union in 2008, Russia invaded and seized 20 per cent of the country’s territory. Similarly placed Armenia has decided to stay within the Russian orbit.

Since the ouster of Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych last month, Crimea has become the main issue of contention between Russia and the new government in Kiev which has the backing of Europe and the US. Crimea was ceded by Russia to Ukraine only in 1954 by Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev in the expectation that Ukraine would always remain tied primarily to Russia. When Ukraine became independent in 1991, Crimea opposed the move and demanded and received autonomous status.

Now that Kiev seeks realignment, Moscow clearly believes the deal over Crimea is off and will do everything in its power to ensure that Crimea remains within the Russian sphere of influence. Russia cannot afford to do otherwise due to the importance of Sevastopol, which has been the home port of the Russian Black Sea Fleet since the 18th century.

When in 2008 Nato leaders met in Bucharest to consider inviting Ukraine to apply for membership, Russian President Vladimir Putin warned that this would be unacceptable. But the very idea that Nato even spoke of such a proposition showed then — as now — how far removed Western leaders are from the realities of Russian-Ukrainian politics.

The EU has offered $15 billion in economic assistance to the Ukraine, matching Russia’s $15 billion loan (of which $2 billion has already been paid) and to provide Ukraine with natural gas. While EU assistance would come with unacceptable International Monetary Fund strings attached its gas offer is totally impractical as it would mean reversing Russian supplies through pipelines to Europe and prompt Moscow to halt exports, thereby harming both Russia and its major clients in Europe, including Holland, Poland, Hungary and Germany.

Moscow has warned Washington not to take any hasty decisions over Russian actions in Crimea as involvement in the Ukraine crisis would have negative consequences for the US itself. Russia has warned that halting talks on a new pact to replace the 1997 Russia-EU Economic and Partnership Agreement and easing of visa restrictions for Russian citizens would nave a negative impact on relations. As Russia is the EU’s third largest trading partner a chill in relations could have a harmful impact on both sides, particularly at a time of economic uncertainty.

Moscow is furious over EU sanctions and has threatened economic reprisals. Francisco Blanch, a commodities strategist quoted by The Telegraph (London), said, “If you implemented sanctions similar to those on Iran, it would be like shooting yourself in the foot. The Brent [oil] price is almost $110 a barrel. If you impose sanctions on Russia, you’re going to send the energy price through the roof and countries will slip into recession.”

On the regional plane, Russia can retaliate by breaking the sanctions regimes imposed on both Iran and Syria, easing the pressure on their governments to capitulate to Western demands. Russia can also end the search for a “political solution” to the conflict in Syria by boosting arms deliveries to Damascus with the aim of ensuring its victory over the collection of insurgent groups seeking to overthrow President Bashar Al Assad.
 
____________________________________________
The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East
affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict

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