Author’s response: Russia and Ukraine
17 Mar 2014|

I refer to Peter Layton’s excellent piece following on from my original post lamenting the seeming inability of many western leaders to understand the Russian position in this unfolding mess.  Peter refers in part to agreements signed by Russia in 1994 and 1997 guaranteeing the future of the Crimea and points out that in a rules-based international order, treaties are important and should be adhered to.  He argues that this explains the US and European Union position—that they’re doing the right thing trying prevent Russia breaking agreements.

That’s fair enough—as far as it goes.  But let’s have a look at how things have changed since 1994 and 1997—years, by the way, when Russia was almost completely prostrate because of internal economic and political turmoil.

In 1999, NATO expanded eastward, signing up the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland.  Then in 2004 another large swag of countries, several bordering on Russia, signed up: Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia.  In 2009 Albania and Croatia also joined.

In the middle of all of this was the US-led invasion of Iraq.  OK, not a direct connection with current circumstances between Russia and Ukraine, but this was a clear example of the US—with wide backing from Europe—launching an attack on a sovereign nation that hadn’t committed a direct act of aggression against those invading it, or had even threatened to do so. Many of us critical of the second Gulf War were fearful of the precedent being set—powerful nations invading others to achieve regime change.

Now, I don’t pretend to have a direct line to the Kremlin, but I suspect at some point around 2004 Putin, Medvedev and others were sitting around a table saying: ‘hang on a minute—what’s going on here’? When you add to that George W. Bush’s Cold War rhetoric about establishing a missile defence shield in eastern Europe—clearly directed against Russia—from Moscow’s perspective the situation must have started to look fairly alarming.

I need hardly remind readers of Russia’s historically justified fears of invasion.

So back to the agreements of 1994 and 1997, at which time Russia had a barely competent leader in the form of the semi-alcoholic Boris Yeltsin.  The treaties might well have been signed in good faith by Russia, but in the almost certain, if naïve, belief that the map of eastern Europe would stay fairly much as it was at the time.  While national boundaries have remained roughly constant, the political landscape has changed immeasurably.

With the US re-writing the rulebook in 2003 and NATO—established in 1949 to counter a Russian-dominated USSR—covering almost all of eastern Europe, it should surprise no one that Russia started pushing back.  Examples include cyber attacks on Estonia in 2007 and the very kinetic war with Georgia in 2008.

A final important point: Moscow believes that pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych is still the legitimate President of the Ukraine and that he has been forced from the country as a result of a right wing putsch.  While this might sound like a paranoid delusion to many, to me Russia’s fears aren’t unreasonable.  Without being an expert in Ukrainian constitutional law, the President is directly elected by the people—not by a baying mob, no matter how large it might be:  Article 103 of the Constitution says:

The President of Ukraine is elected by the citizens of Ukraine for a five-year term, on the basis of universal, equal and direct suffrage, by secret ballot.

It seems that it isn’t legally possible for the Ukrainian parliament to sack and appoint Presidents. So let’s have the rule of law and correct process— but that needs to be followed by everyone, not just Russia.

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