Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Battlefield Ukraine: Stop Putin Now!

Having lost the fight to keep his stooge, Victor Yanukovich, in power in Ukraine, Putin has launched an outright invasion of the former Soviet republic.  He's made it clear that despite the strong desire of the Ukrainian people to become part of the European Union and the democratic world as a whole, Ukraine will not be allowed to leave Russia's sphere of influence.  But why should Putin care what the Ukrainian people want?  He doesn't even care about what his own people want.  That's why he routinely has folks who disagree with him beaten, jailed, or even killed.  After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, many Russians believed that their country would finally be ruled by its people rather than by czars, oligarchs and other kinds of dictators.  FAT CHANCE!  Russia today is not the people's Russia - it's Putin's Russia.  He, with the help of his allies, including a few wealthy business elites and the Russian Orthodox church now controls the country and he's determined not to let anyone change that.

But as with most power-hungry dictators, controlling one country simply isn't enough, even if that country is as large as Russia.  And so it's no surprise to see Putin now trying to grab territory from his neighbours.  It's not like he hasn't done it before.  In 2008, Putin sent his troops into the breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, both formerly controlled by Georgia, under the guise of protecting the people of the two regions from Georgian aggression.  But protection was not Putin's true intention.  Rather, he was simply seeking to expand Russia's borders.  Today, Abkhazia and South Ossetia are de facto Russian protectorates with puppet governments answering to Putin, not unlike the puppet states of Slovakia and Croatia created by Hitler's Nazi Germany.  Yes, it's true that the Abkhazians and South Ossetians have legitimate aspirations towards independence, just as many Slovaks and Croats had during World War II.  But these aspirations are not fulfilled by becoming tributary states of Russia. 

Now, Putin is using the same kind of excuse to invade Ukrainian territory, saying that he is only trying to protect the country's large Russian-speaking minority and that he was invited to do so by Yanukovich, whom he still sees as Ukraine's legitimate leader.  Putin believes that his fellow Russians in Ukraine are oppressed in the same way Kosovo's Albanians were by Serbia.  Indeed, Serbia's actions against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo was what prompted Western intervention, which eventually led to Kosovo's independence.  So Putin may argue that if the West saw fit to intervene to protect Kosovo's Albanians, he should have the right to do the same in Ukraine on behalf of its Russian minority.  But this argument simply doesn't hold water.  In Kosovo, Serbia's dictator, Slobodan Milosevic, who was also a strong ally of Russia, waged an all-out campaign of ethnic cleansing against Kosovo's Albanian population, killing thousands and driving thousands more from their homes.  In Ukraine, there is no mass campaign of ethnic cleansing or genocide against Russian speakers.  In fact, even a recent effort by some members of Ukraine's parliament to cancel the special status that the Russian language enjoys in regions where it is widely spoken was vetoed by the interim president.  The vast majority of Ukrainians know that if they want their country to be a democracy and become part of a united Europe, they must respect the rights of minority communities.  Yes, there are some extreme nationalists amongst the Ukrainians, but they are a minority.  The same is true for Ukraine's Russian-speaking population where it is a minority of extreme Russian nationalists that are demanding unification with Russia.  Many Russian-speaking Ukrainians actually oppose Putin's invasion.  Unfortunately Putin, like all other dictators, will do what he wants and will not listen to anyone who tells him to do otherwise.

As I said before, Putin's actions should not surprise anyone and they certainly did not surprise me.  In fact, even before Ukraine's popular will overthrow Putin's puppet, Yanukovich, I suggested how an invasion could be prevented - by allowing regions of the country in which Russian speakers form a majority to hold a referendum and choosing to remain part of Ukraine, seek independence, or seek a unification with Russia (see my post entitled, De-constructing Multi-ethnic States and Creating Real Nation-States: My Personal Take on Redrawing International Borders).  But one former work colleague of mine, who I've found has much more knowledge of Ukrainian and Russian history than I do, told me that such as solution would be unjust because most of the Russian-speaking population that resides in Ukraine resides there because the south and east of the country was Russified by Stalin.  In Crimea, for example, Stalin uprooted most of the population of the peninsula's indigenous Tatars, deporting them to central Asia and moving Russians in to replace them.  So why should Putin be able to use the Russian-speaking population in Ukraine adjacent to Russia itself as an excuse to grab more territory?  Thanks to my former colleague, I now know that the correct answer to this question: Putin must not be allowed to use such an excuse to invade Ukraine and annex its land.  If anything, it's Russia that owes Ukraine territory since, as my former colleague also informed me, some of what is now part of Russia was once part of Ukraine and was also subject to Russification. 

In fact, Russia has no legitimate claim over most of the land it has jurisdiction over.  All the territories that Russia holds east of the Ural mountains and near the Caucus mountain range is land conquered over the centuries by Russian despots - land that once belonged to the Yakuts, the Tatars, the Cherkassians, the Chechens and several other peoples who have been living under the boot of Russia for centuries.  It is these people that have the legitimate right to have their territory - and their independence - returned to them.  For now, however, we must concentrate on ensuring that Putin's Russia does not encroach further onto Ukrainian territory.

Unfortunately, I have little faith that a strong international response is forthcoming.  Europe is extremely dependent on Russian gas for its energy needs, so a tough response from the European Union is unlikely.  As for the Americans, their Neville Chamberlain-esque president, Barack Obama, has already surrendered to Putin's growing clout on the issue of Syria's civil war, which is why Bashar Al-Assad is allowed to continue butchering his own people.  Hence, I find it highly unlikely that the Americans will mount a strong response, opting instead for a lot of talk and perhaps some economic sanctions, which have generally proven ineffective when dealing with aggressive dictators, like Putin.  At the end of the day, there is only one thing that can stop a dictator dead in his tracks - force.

But neither the U.S. nor Europe is ready for any new armed confrontation, especially with a nuclear-armed Russia.  Europe is still going through its worst economic crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s.  As for the U.S., although its economy is showing signs of recovery, the world's lone superpower (at least for now) is still facing a mountain of debt, which American politicians are now planning to pay off, in part, by reducing the size of their military.  And as the Americans weaken their military, Russia, along with other major U.S. rivals, like China and Iran, will strengthen theirs.

What is now happening in Ukraine is only the beginning.  The Crimea and eastern Ukraine are for Putin what Czechoslovakia's Sudetenland was for Hitler.  And anyone who knows their history knows that allowing Hitler to take the Sudetenland did not prevent him from taking the rest of Czechoslovakia and eventually conquering most of Europe, nor will allowing Putin to take the Crimea and eastern Ukraine prevent him from taking over the entire country...and perhaps waging further conquests in the future.

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