How the West drove Russia into Ukraine
Too many are blaming Putin for a mess of the West’s making.
The mainstream story of the conflict in Ukraine is mind-meltingly simple: it was Russia wot dunnit. Since the fall of its Russian puppet of a president, Viktor Yanukovych, Russia has ceaselessly and relentlessly pursued a policy of military aggression against Ukraine. It really is that simple. Everything that is happening in Ukraine, from the displacement of nearly 300,000 people, to the killing of 2,200 more, is the fault of Russia and its chest-beating throwback of a president, Vladimir Putin.
Just listen to what Western politicians are saying. US president Barack Obama’s administration has talked darkly of Russia’s ‘pattern of escalating aggression’; Republican senator John McCain has spoken explicitly of the Russian ‘invasion’ as the work ‘an old KGB colonel [who] wants to restore the Russian empire’; and German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier admitted at the weekend that thanks to Russia’s ‘border infringements’, ‘the situation is slipping out of control’. Little wonder that The Times editorial talks in concerned tones of ‘Mr Putin’s war’. Because that’s what it looks like: a war planned out and pursued by Putin.
And why might Putin be waging this massively costly, destabilising war? Because, so the story goes, he and his cronies want to create a new Russian empire. This is clearly what one Guardian columnist has in mind when he writes that Putin has ‘a long-term plan to recreate a greater Russia by regaining control of Ukraine and other states in the “near abroad”’. According to a US academic in the Globe and Mail, it’s all part of Putin’s ‘dream of imperial restoration’, his ‘delusionary imperial ambitions’. And why the additional adjective ‘delusionary’? Because the key character in this brilliantly simple story of Russian aggression, Putin, is also undeniably mad. Why else would he be trying to act out his imperial dreams, runs the logic, if he didn’t have a screw loose? ‘Mr Putin is not rational’, states a New York Times op-ed: ‘Any rational leader would have reeled from the cost of Western sanctions.’ Slate goes further: ‘[Putin’s] actions are certainly consistent with the portrait of an enraged, hypernationalist, conspiratorial madman who is heedless of the consequences to Russia and to himself.’
So there you have it. The situation in Ukraine is the product of the machinations of the Moscow madman, and his circle of ex-KGB macho men. It is Russia’s fault. The bloodshed in Ukraine, its fragmentation, its region-shaking instability – all of it can be laid at Russia’s feet.
Or at least it could be if any of this were true. Yes, Russia did annex Crimea, a region of Ukraine with a mainly ethnically Russian population. Yes, there clearly are Russian soldiers operating in eastern Ukraine (reports estimate 1,000). And, yes, the pro-Russian separatists in places like Donetsk will have had support from Russia. But none of this is the result of Putin’s ‘dream of imperial restoration’, or his ‘hypernationalist, conspiratorial madness’. Russia is not realising any sort of pre-meditated plan at all. In fact, it is not determining events; it is responding to them. It saw anti-Russian protesters in Kiev violently replace Ukraine’s democratically elected leader, Yanukovych, with a pro-Western government complete with a faction of bona fide neo-fascists in February. And it watched on as Western leaders serenaded Ukraine’s new government with songs of approval. And seeing what happened, seeing Ukraine transformed into a strategic threat right on its own borders, Russia responded by swiftly taking back Crimea, and then attempted to shore up other parts of eastern Ukraine. Russia’s intervention in Ukraine isn’t madness; it’s a rational, realist response to what it correctly perceives as a geopolitical threat right there in its own backyard.
In fact, as we have consistently argued on spiked, the crisis in Ukraine owes far more to Western meddling than Russian. In fact, (as John Mearsheimer points out in Foreign Affairs) for the past 20 years, Western leaders have thoughtlessly, blunderingly provoked and frightened Russia over Ukraine. They have tried to pull Ukraine into the orbit of the EU, if not the EU itself. They have issued the half-baked offer of NATO membership to Ukraine, while simultaneously withdrawing it. And they have persistently, and self-aggrandisingly, talked of ‘promoting democracy’ in Ukraine and promulgating ‘Western values’. And what has made this so dangerous, what has led the region to the precipice, is that those selfsame Western actors pushing this policy-triad in the Ukraine don’t even recognise their intervention, their meddling, their clueless interference in Russia’s neighbour and one-time ally, for what it is: a provocation and a threat to Russia.
But that is precisely what it must appear as to Russian eyes. From Bill Clinton’s US administration of the mid-1990s pushing for NATO expansion (which led to the incorporation of such Eastern bloc stalwarts as Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania and Latvia between 1999 and 2004), to the Bush administration’s 2008 half-promise to Georgia and Ukraine that they ‘will become members of NATO’, Western leaders have long looked set on turning Ukraine into a military adversary of Russia. Then there’s the EU’s march eastwards, with its 2008 initiative, the Eastern Partnership scheme, designed to integrate Ukraine into European economy. And to ice these two layers of a distinctly Western cake to be served out on Russian borders, there has been the constant drum of pro-democracy rhetoric from the West, in which Ukraine is posited as an eastern outpost ripe for transformation into a Western-style liberal democracy. Indeed, US assistant secretary of state Victoria Nuland has admitted that since 1991, the US has spent upwards of $5 billion on pro-democracy initiatives in Ukraine.
What happened at the end of last year, when anti-Russian, pro-EU demonstrators converged on Maidan Square in Kiev, and eventually drove the elected president from office, was not the beginning of Ukraine’s current conflict. Rather, those protests were fuelled by years of Western interference in the region, years of ‘pro-democracy’ propaganda, and years of economic / military promises. Given the West’s semi-unwitting role in fermenting the unrest, it is unsurprising that Western leaders blithely endorsed the protests and celebrated the downfall of Yanukovych. This, after all, was what they had long wanted.
That is why then German foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, thought nothing at the time of announcing that ‘the hearts of the people of Ukraine beat for the EU’. This is why Senator McCain happily undertook a backslapping tour of the protest camps in December, before declaring ‘We are here to support your just cause’. This is why then UK foreign secretary William Hague unthinkingly praised Ukraine’s anti-government protesters: ‘It is inspiring to see these people standing up for their vision of the future of Ukraine: a free, sovereign, democratic country with much closer ties to the European Union.’ It was the culmination of a years-long, blundering, blustering attempt to turn Ukraine Western. Not because it served a particular geopolitical purpose, but because it just seemed right. And with little really at stake in Ukraine, why not? All this righteous posturing certainly plays well to a domestic audience.
Now, tragically, the reason why not is painfully clear. A whole nation is being torn asunder as Russia desperately tries to manage the chaos the West has unleashed on its borders. This is not to endorse Russia’s response; its interventions are understandable, but they’re not helpful. Its continued military incursions are acting as a block to the one possibly useful and peaceful solution – a federal solution within Ukraine itself.
Be that as it may, there’s no doubt where the finger of blame should really be pointing as Ukraine continues to unravel. And that is to those Western leaders who continue to provoke Russia. And what makes this all the more dangerous is that they do so blindly, with little sense of geopolitics or strategic interests – indeed, with little sense of the real stuff of international politics. They continue to talk of Ukraine’s NATO membership; they continue to pull what’s left of Ukraine’s economy towards the EU; and they continue ever more shrilly to counterpose Western values, and Western progressiveness, to the dark un-PC traditionalism of their imagined Russia. And on top of that, they continue to paint Russia as the aggressor, as the source of all Ukraine’s problems.
Russia’s military involvement in Ukraine is dangerous; but more dangerous still are the Western drivers of regional instability who time and again intervene with no sense of consequence and no sense of responsibility.
Tim Black is deputy editor of spiked.
Picture by: PA