Scoop Election 08: edited by Gordon Campbell

Gordon Campbell on our response to Russia’s actions in the Ukraine

March 4th, 2014

To the Russians, the current crisis in the Ukraine must seem like a no-brainer. Ukraine has always been treated as vital to Russia’s self-defence, and to its role as a modern world power. (Russia has had a fleet stationed in the Crimea since 1783.) The Crimea had been gifted by Russia to the Ukraine only 60 years ago and it is now being taken back, apparently with the enthusiastic support of the pro-Russian population of the region. In the process, the territorial integrity of the modern Ukraine now seems doomed. We seem headed for a re-run of the crisis in 2008 when the Russian military annexed parts of Georgia (namely, the regions of Abhazia and South Ossetia) after the pro-Western leadership in Georgia over-reached itself, only to find that the response of the European Union and United States was limited to expressions of deep moral outrage and hand-wringing regret. Similarly, the interim government in Kiev is about to discover that the support shown to it by that nice Catherine Ashton of the European Union will be of little use in stopping a Russian tank.

Internally, the divisions in modern Ukraine have – if anything – only come further to the fore since the country won independence in 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. (The 1991 election was the only time the leading candidate won over 50% in the first round.) In the elections of 2004 and 2010, the outcome saw almost a perfect 50/50 split between a pro-Russian south and east on the one hand, a pro-European west of the country on the other and a central region evenly split between the two. The Russian military is now poised to make that electoral divide into a geographical reality.

In doing so, the Russians are acting in what they consider to be their vital national interest. Last December, even the right wing think tank Stratfor agreed, and usefully spelled out just how Russia views the Ukraine:

Ukraine is as important to Russian national security as Scotland is to England or Texas is to the United States. In the hands of an enemy, these places would pose an existential threat to all three countries…and this reality shapes the core of Ukrainian life. In a fundamental sense, geography has imposed limits on Ukrainian national sovereignty and therefore on the lives of Ukrainians. From a purely strategic standpoint, Ukraine is Russia’s soft underbelly. Dominated by Russia, Ukraine anchors Russian power in the Carpathians. These mountains are not impossible to penetrate, but they can’t be penetrated easily. If Ukraine is under the influence or control of a Western power, Russia’s (and Belarus’) southern flank is wide open along an arc running from the Polish border east almost to Volgograd then south to the Sea of Azov, a distance of more than 1,000 miles, more than 700 of which lie along Russia proper. There are few natural barriers.

For Russia, Ukraine is a matter of fundamental national security. For a Western power, Ukraine is of value only if that power is planning to engage and defeat Russia, as the Germans tried to do in World War II. At the moment, given that no one in Europe or in the United States is thinking of engaging Russia militarily, Ukraine is not an essential asset. But from the Russian point of view it is fundamental, regardless of what anyone is thinking of at the moment. In 1932, Germany was a basket case; by 1941, it had conquered the European continent and was deep into Russia. One thing the Russians have learned in a long and painful history is to never plan based on what others are capable of doing or thinking at the moment. And given that, the future of Ukraine is never a casual matter for them.

Besides its crucial role in Russian self defence, Ukraine is an essential gateway for Russia, to the outside world.

Ukraine controls Russia’s access to the Black Sea and therefore to the Mediterranean. The ports of Odessa and Sevastopol provide both military and commercial access for exports, particularly from southern Russia. It is also a critical pipeline route for sending energy to Europe, a commercial and a strategic requirement for Russia, since energy has become a primary lever for influencing and controlling other countries, including Ukraine.

None of which, of course, gives Russia the right to invade Ukraine and subdue it by military force. One can certainly sympathise with the brave protesters in Kiev who toppled Vladimir Putin’s puppet, only to be directly confronted by Russia’s own military might. Back in 1994, the United States, Great Britain, and Russia had all agreed to respect and to safeguard Ukraine’s territorial integrity, in exchange for Kiev’s agreement to destroy its stockpile of nuclear weapons. Regardless, Putin would have considered it unthinkable to let Russia remain a mere bystander while the Ukraine drifted into the Western sphere of influence. His own survival required some kind of meaningful action – and if he could get away with annexing parts of Georgia in 2008, why not those parts of the Ukraine that are (a) pro-Russian and (b) strategically important to the Kremlin?

As even Prime Minister John Key and Foreign Minister Murray McCully said yesterday, Russia does have ‘valid strategic interests’ in the Crimea. Which in diplomacy-speak sounds like a greenlight to go right ahead and protect those interests. But hold on…red light, red light: Russia’s current actions were “unacceptable”, a cause for “grave concern” and New Zealand would be calling in the Russian ambassador. Yet from Key’s statements at yesterday’s post Cabinet press conference, it was initially hard to discern just what New Zealand would be asking the Russian ambassador to relay to the Kremlin, much less what we would consider to be an acceptable way for Russia to protect its ‘valid strategic interests.’ Was the invasion of Crimea regrettable (but understandable) but would sending Russian troops anywhere else be considered beyond the pale? What would actually Russia need to do, Scoop asked, to be in compliance with New Zealand’s position? Ultimately, Key agreed that we would be asking Russia to remove its troops from the Crimea entirely. (Fat chance of that.)

In the meantime, New Zealand would also be shelving its ongoing talks to finalise a free trade deal with Russia, Kazhkstan and Belarus. Now isn’t the right time to finalise such a deal, Key said, but we would be “re-visiting” the situation in the months ahead. Formerly of course – during the days of the old Soviet Union – Belarus, Kazahkstan and the Ukraine used to be treated alike, as a bloc of loyal Soviet republics. Next time we revisit our free trade deal with Russia, we may well find that a militarily subjugated Ukraine could be part of the fresh configuration for our FTA, alongside Kazahkstan and Belarus. Would we still be feeling so morally outraged that we could not possibly countenance such a deal? Given sufficient time to elapse in order to observe the diplomatic niceties, probably not.


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    1. 11 Responses to “Gordon Campbell on our response to Russia’s actions in the Ukraine”

    2. By Sanctuary on Mar 4, 2014 | Reply

      Almost exactly 100 years after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, Slav nationalism is again a cause of great power confrontation. The more things change, the more they stay the same…

    3. By Malcolm on Mar 4, 2014 | Reply

      Memo to Putin-When Hitler launched his wars of aggression he had capital controls in place.

    4. By awryly on Mar 4, 2014 | Reply

      What on earth are you talking about?

      The “territorial integrity of the Ukraine” is just a poster child for the West.

      If the Crimeans (or the rest of the east and south Ukraine) want to align with the Russians, so what?

      So the West may have to pay more for its gas. Tough.

    5. By awryly on Mar 4, 2014 | Reply

      The Ukraine has, at various times, been run by the Swedes, Poles, Mongols, Turks and various others.

      Most of those were far more disruptive than the Russians are now being.

      It’s a non-event. Except, plaintively, to Obama and a distraught American public.

    6. By Richard on Mar 4, 2014 | Reply

      I think the reaction of John Key was to say the least ill informed, I think our spy and foreign services are bogged down by other issues like DotCom or the TPP. I feel this Government now is just an expression of media or political think from the heads in Washington USA.
      The New Dictator of the Ukraine that is a Banking figure is he an old friend of John Key I wonder?

    7. By Peter Dyer on Mar 5, 2014 | Reply

      US Senator John Kerry said, “You just don’t, in the 21st century, behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on a completely trumped-up pretext.

      This from one of the large majority of US Congressmen who voted to authorise the 2003 US invasion of Iraq.

      If there was the equivalent of a Nobel Prize for hypocrisy, Mr Kerry would surely be a finalist.

    8. By Win on Mar 5, 2014 | Reply

      Totally agree. ^ People getting their nickers in a twist over the Russians. Why not ask the US what they did to destabilise the place. Upholders of democracy etc etc blah blah. Hypocrites. NZ bowing to their US masters.

    9. By Andrew Nichols on Mar 5, 2014 | Reply

      If there was the equivalent of a Nobel Prize for hypocrisy, Mr Kerry would surely be a finalist.

      Hypocrisy? Isn’t that a sysnonym for US diplomacy?

    10. By James O'Neill on Mar 5, 2014 | Reply

      Mr Campbell, Are you not rather overlooking a number of very important parts of recent developments. These include, but are not limited to, the obvious role of the Americans in staging what is in fact a coup d’etat. Ms Nuland’s comments, memorably captured for the world to hear, makes that abundantly clear.

      This has all the hallmarks of a NATO directed Gladio operation, as they have done in a number of areas of Russian vital interest since 1991.

      And for John Kerry to say that the US disapproves of armed intervention in the affairs of other nations confirms what we have long suspected: the US has had an irony bypass.

    11. By Cam McLeod on Mar 6, 2014 | Reply

      Mr O’Neill, the last time I checked it was not the United States that staged a coup d’etat in Ukraine – indeed, it happened to be a large number of Ukrainians who drove their kleptocratic and unbelievably corrupt Viktor Yanukovych from office. The United States did rightly support these people in exercising their freewill (freewill being something that successive Russian Governments dislike). It is abundantly clear that Putin did not have any justification for invading and occupying the Crimean Peninsula and breaching the territorial integrity and violating the sovereignty of the Ukraine. Further, your ill-informed belief that the existence of US imperialism somehow justifies other forms of imperialism is absurd. Just because the United States has taken a stance (at times with force) against a wide range of thoroughly abusive and totalitarian regimes does not justify Russia’s intervention in Ukraine. Your dim-witted attack on Mr Campbell’s fine column misses the point entirely and only reinforces how ignorant you are.

    12. By murray williams on Mar 10, 2014 | Reply

      The ritualistic US response to the Crimean “crisis” is shown to be little more than a perpetuation of the old cold war mentality in modern drag. The lessons of history are there for all to read, should the eyes be willing, and Gordon Campbell has provided a timely reminder of some of that history, as well as the strategic realities of that part of the world. It is a strategic reality that the diffident responses of some European leaders reflect and if the US could climb down off its soap box there will be less tension in the air. Russians have a profound sense of “motherland” and those residing just across the border from the Russian political entity are no less Russian than those within.
      I predict the eastern fringe of Ukraine may also soon enjoy more overt Russian “protection” if the Kiev politicians don’t form a govt that gives the Russian speakers greater recognition and influence. I applaud Mr Campbell’s column for being one that finally points out the historical and strategic issues at play instead of simply respouting the tired ol’ US rhetoric.

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