Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Today's Editorial 20 March 2014

           Turmoil in Ukraine

Source: By Salman Haidar: The Statesman
Ukraine is currently the most challenging global hotspot. Unlike several other troubled parts of the world, this is a major country with very substantial human and material resources. The contest for control and influence within the country draws in some most important international entities, including great powers and groups of their allies. Economic as well as political stakes are high, which makes for fierce competition and unbending rivalry. Opinion within the country has been polarised and the different groups have failed to resolve their differences. Their adamancy in holding to their rival courses has taken a violent turn: not so long ago Ukraine’s capital, Kiev, witnessed fierce street battles which led to great loss of life, and that in turn further embittered the opposed groups. Nor has violence ended, as very recent incidents testify.

Disorder has made room for intervention from outside the borders of Ukraine, creating an uncertain position on the ground and a perceived risk of further armed clashes. Efforts to calm matters down have achieved little. If anything, the country seems to be drawing closer to escalated confrontation, with unknowable consequences. A separatist demand for a referendum to determine the future of Crimea could not be prevented and the preliminary indications of the results confirm overwhelming support in Crimea for re-integration with Russia. It is a multi-dimensional crisis replete with echoes of past conflicts in the region that go deep into European history. Reverberations from the past have only complicated the task of containing and controlling the crisis.

Where this crisis is leading, its wider implications, and indeed why it should have taken place at all, are not matters easy to comprehend for those distant from the scene. It is suggested by some commentators that what is happening is at core a struggle between democracy and autocracy, with a democratising Ukrainian majority being held up by ethnic Russians who predominate in the eastern part of the country and owe allegiance to Moscow. But this looks like an over-simplification and there are other factors also to be taken into account. Ukraine has long been eager to strengthen ties with the EU and there is popular support for such a course; efforts in that direction have been going on for quite a while and something like a stage-by-stage process has been envisaged, with strengthened economic ties and internal political reforms leading towards eventual membership. Ukraine has not prospered in recent years and has struggled to handle its economic problems; it seeks economic salvation through throwing in its lot with the EU, as have others among the former COMECON countries. The EU has encouraged this process while monitoring it closely, especially the required political transition. While drawing closer to the EU, Ukraine also feels the need to maintain intimate economic ties with its giant neighbour Russia from which it obtains energy and other essential supplies. It would seem that balancing between the two sides has proved virtually impossible and has helped bring about the breakdown that has afflicted the country today.

It has been argued from another point of view that what is going on is part of the prolonged after-shock of the abrupt end of the Soviet system. At that point, the centrality of Russia had come under challenge as the various autonomous former Soviet republics fell away to follow their own fate; however, the umbilical links with Russia, especially economic links, were not so easily to be dispensed with. The presence of substantial Russian communities in many of the new countries served both to bind and also to create anxieties. A decade ago Ukraine underwent the sweeping ‘Orange Revolution’ that set it on a fresh, more democratic course at a time when other former Soviet republics were undergoing their own multi-hued revolutions that were expected to usher in a new era. Other parts of the world, including notably the Arab lands at much the same time were undergoing their own restructuring processes, and the ‘Arab Spring’ has been invoked on occasion in order to try to understand what has been happening in Ukraine.

However, there are no easy parallels to be drawn. Great changes have taken place since the coloured revolutions of some years ago when Russia seemed unable to make any effective intervention in the sweeping events on its doorstep. Since then, Russia has bounced back, its economy has done well and made it capable of following a more assertive foreign policy. Where what it regards as its essential interests are considered to be at risk, Russia is quite prepared to pursue a course of action that places it at odds with other powerful international actors. This was to be seen in Syria where Moscow held out against strong pressure to withdraw support from President Assad: there it had China for company and together they presented a front at the UN that could not be bypassed. On Ukraine, however, and on the issue of the Crimean referendum, Russia has been alone, for none of the other permanent members and other important entities have joined it in opposing a US-led initiative to stifle the separatist move. Nothing daunted, Russia has exercised its veto in the face of strong pressure from other permanent members and their supporters. Sanctions have been threatened but these may not be easy to implement effectively owing to the many close linkages between Russia and other parts of Europe. There is thus an air of uncertainty about what comes next.

Relations between Russia and Ukraine have had their ups and downs in previous years even before this latest development. A few years ago when Ukraine was drifting away, Russia used its economic leverage to bring it around by demanding commercial rather than sudsidised rates for the gas it was supplying. Ukraine smarted but had to conform. This time, Russia has not had to resort to arm twisting, being able to match promised subsidies from the EU with offers of its own. As this shows, Russia is now a much more formidable player in its close neighbourhood. At the same time, it now projects a more challenging strategic vision that has to be taken into account by partners and rivals. It sees a much enlarged role for itself in the Eurasian region it straddles, to that extent offering an alternative to the progressive dominance of the EU and the West. For the West, this is a matter of concern, and there have been dark apprehensions that President Putin could be trying to re-knit the Soviet Union.

Such notions have no substance but they point to a revived rivalry in Eurasia that will have to be taken into account by strategic planners. No military issues other than those afflicting Ukraine itself have arisen but NATO may well take interest in a situation where the EU has been baulked. So a period of watchfulness and search for advantage between rivals lies ahead.

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