Crisis in Ukraine – A Second Cold War?

Will Holmes

Will is a campaigner, political obsessive and sometime amateur actor. Having just helped win the election for Barack Obama, he's looking for his next cause to take up his life. Often seen walking the fields and drinking in the pubs of Kent, he's got a lot of opinions (and love) to share.

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A developing country on the edge of Europe paralysed by a battle between East and West, a revolution which has been a long time coming. Russian troops amassing, NATO crisis meetings, a UN ineffective against heavyweight governments. Phone calls between an embattled US President and a Russian President buoyed by recent successes. NATO and the EU line up against Russia and the East. Civilians caught in the crossfire, losing their lives because they want their freedom, as the world watches on in fear of yet another war. Nuclear powers able to destroy the world hundreds of times over controlled by proud, embittered and irresponsible men. This isn’t the 1960s, the height of the Cold War, this is now. This is Ukraine.

The crisis in Ukraine has been bubbling under the surface for years. Even pre-1945 Ukraine had a history as a country torn apart by conflict numerous times and with a mixed ethnic population. To many Russians, Ukraine, due to Kiev being the original capital of an Orthodox Christian empire called Rus, is the cradle of Russian civilization. The country, subsumed into the USSR after the Cold War, has a population which is 77% Ukrainian and 17% Russian, with over a third of the population speaking Russian and having strong ties to Russia. Post-1991 Ukraine became an independent country, and the troubles began.

Ukrainian leaders, many of them corrupt or incompetent, failed to modernise the Ukrainian economy. The West began to court Ukraine, with money and with flattery, and tried to move it towards joining NATO or joining the EU. Russia, with Putin as President, wouldn’t stand for this and tried to install puppet governments (this failed in 2004 when Putin’s puppet Yanukovych was overthrown in the Orange revolution – supported by Western dollars).

Most recently, discussions over closer ties to the EU or to Russia have erupted into armed conflict on the streets of Kiev and other major cities; Yanukovych (reelected in 2010) has been forced from power again and Russian forces have moved out of their naval bases and into Crimea – a part of Ukraine that is Russian in its population and its outlook. Barack Obama has told Putin there will be consequences, but Putin is a man who will not tolerate humiliation and will seek his revenge.

The fear is that we are hurtling towards another war, a war fought between Russia and the West over a country standing in the middle. A little known pact, the Budapest Memorandum (1994), is being held up as a declaration that Britain and the United States, and therefore NATO and the EU almost certainly, will have to act to protect Ukraine – although this is questioned by many academics. There are reports that Russian forces, brought into Crimea to protect ethnic Russians, have been provoking the population and causing riots so as to give basis to their invasion.

Many have argued before that the current state of the global world will prevent a world war ever happening. Unfortunately, rational international thought shows this cannot be the case – they said this in 1914 and in 1939 and look how wrong they were. Could this be the flashpoint that starts a global war? I doubt it. Russia and the US have far too much to lose and, whilst neither looks like backing down now, we are in a different place to where we were 30 years ago. Russia and the US actually talk now (a 90 minute call between Obama and Putin yesterday for example) and whilst bravado wins the day in public, I trust in the diplomacy behind the scenes – even in a UN that is paralysed when two permanent members of the Security Council disagree – which is almost every time.

This isn’t some US or Western defence of freedom either, it’s a cynical geopolitical game to neutralise Russian power. Yes, Putin is a pretty awful man, but we can’t blame him for everything here – and it is massive over simplification to even try. The West is just as culpable over Ukraine, bankrolling revolution and political intrigue; it just (in this case anyway) goes about it without force. Were ethnic Britons at risk, and living in a country which seemed to treat them worse, would our government stand by and watch a revolution happen? I doubt that.

Ukraine, as does every other country, has the right to determine its own fate. Yes, this may be decided in conflict and with bloodshed, which we must denounce. However, geopolitical games fought whilst people suffer, and whilst people fight for their rights and their freedoms will never make a situation better. Irresponsible foreign policy games in Ukraine have, as they always have, caused a crisis which could have been solved to have escalated into the situation we now see. I just hope our leaders roll back their pride and bravado before it is too late for the people of Ukraine.

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