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UKRAINE ON THE BRINK

- Meddlesome great powers like to fish in troubled waters

Ukraine is at the crossroads, its future uncertain, its ethnic faultiness dangerously exposed to the deepening turbulence in Russia-Nato relations. The country is a house divided, of conflicting identities — Russian in the industrialized East, non-Russian in the rural West — with combustible angles of vision on a fraught past. The country’s western region, the seedbed of uncompromising nationalism, with its fascist and pro-Nazi colourations, is best exemplified by Stepan Bandera’s wartime party and kindred groups that collaborated with Nazi occupation forces in the murder of Jews and Poles. These extremist elements are the ideological forebears of the present Pravy Sektor (Right Sector) and Svoboda (Freedom), both in varying degrees anti-Semitic and much given to railing against the “Jewish-Russian mafia” in Kiev. Pravy Sektor is in denial over its anti-Semitism (which it ascribes to Moscow propaganda), but says it is “nationalist, defending the values of white, Christian Europe”, that it holds multiculturalism “responsible for the disappearance of the crucifix and the arrival of girls in burqas in your schools”, a view with which Svoboda is in fervent accord. However, Pravy Sektor, unlike Svoboda, is against joining the European Union.

Among Svoboda’s priorities is the cultural cleansing of Russian influences in the country, which include banning the teaching of Russian in schools (the country has been, and is, bilingual), abolishing Russian street names, depriving Russian-populated Crimea its autonomy, and joining Nato for the acquisition of modern weaponry. Yulia Tymoshenko, the former Ukrainian prime minister, who fell out with President Viktor Yanukovych and was imprisoned for corruption, stood again for the presidency recently and lost. The country’s foremost political virago gave vent on camera to anti-Russian fury, advocating the use of nuclear weapons against Crimea’s Russian population. Yet, it was in Kievan Rus’ that the Russian state was born; both nations are tied by the umbilical cord of the Orthodox faith, culture and history. Nikolai Gogol, among the titans of 19th-century Russian literature, was Ukranian by birth but Russian in his choice of language. Thousands of Ukrainians today work in Russia — as do Georgians — and send back substantial remittances to their families and dependants.

Troubled waters are where meddlesome great powers most like to fish. Ukraine is where the United States of America and Nato chose to bait Russia; it was to be the post-Cold-War denouement to contain and encircle Russia: to break Russia’s resolve and capacity as an effective rival. Nato’s eastward expansion violated the solemn assurances of Western leaders to Mikhail Gorbachev, then Soviet leader, that no advantage would be taken if Soviet forces withdrew from Eastern and Central Europe. Jack Matlock, then US ambassador in Moscow has told how the end of the Cold War was a negotiation with the Soviet Union with no winners and losers in mind.

Recounting this recently in The Washington Post, Matlock deplored the consequent Western triumphalism and the expansion of Nato, which other hallowed veterans at the heart of the American establishment, such as George Kennan and Paul Nitze, warned against as needlessly provocative. But with the corrupt, drunk, incompetent Boris Yeltsin at the helm, the opportunity for the Clinton administration to act with impunity was too good to pass. Mikhail Gorbachev described his country’s foreign minister, during this period, as the US consul general in Moscow. Matlock further deplored Nato’s decision to bomb and destroy Yugoslavia, arbitrarily detach Kosovo from Serbia, invade Iraq and attack Libya as dangerous precedents from which there would be the inevitable blowback against what the late Senator J. William Fulbright, in the aftermath of Vietnam, described as the “Arrogance of Power”.

Straddling foundations, think-tanks, universities and such revered institutions as the Council on Foreign Relations, the Kennedy School at Harvard, the Woodrow Wilson Center, the Nitze School at Johns Hopkins, the Naval War College, Georgetown University, the Brookings and Carnegie Foundations, the departments of state and defense, not to speak of the National Security Council and Central Intelligence Agency, are where American grand-strategists gather and move seamlessly to and fro, regardless of party sympathies or affiliations, affirming through word, speech and deed the sanctities of “the indispensable power,” its “exceptionalism” and its “Manifest Destiny” as the planet’s “Liberal Leviathan” or preferred “benign hegemon”, which, an irreverent contrarian noted, is as fictional a construct as the unicorn since the hegemonic gene is more brutish than benign.

These keepers of the sacred flame cogitate endlessly on the conjugal alignments of Theodore Roosevelt’s robust realpolitik with Woodrow Wilson’s moral vision of democracy, human rights and free markets. American values and interests are a seamless robe of holy writ. Such casuistries are not, however, in sole possession of the commanding heights. A galaxy of distinguished American historians and political theorists, from William Appleman Williams, Noam Chomsky, Chalmers Johnson, Gabriel Kolko and Walter Lippmann have produced an impressive kulturkritik, giving a disenchanted public space to grow.

In the infinite present, America’s war on terror has been neutered to “Contingency Operations” by an Obama presidential order, matching the George W. Bush edict of “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques” — palliatives for torture, pure and simple. Humanitarian interventions, whether it be in Iraq or Libya have reduced the intended beneficiaries to howling desolations of lawlessness and sectarian strife, with only death as the merciful liberator. Benjamin Rhodes, Obama’s speech-writer and now deputy national security advisor, has written, “What we’re trying to do is to get America another fifty years as leader.” The president, a Nobel Peace laureate, has set his sights higher with pronouncements on making this the American Century.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, Polish American strategist and former national security advisor in the Carter administration, having cast his sights through his crystal ball on the vast Eurasian landscape, proclaimed that China was key to America’s containment of Russia, that the defining contest of wills between Washington and Moscow would be Ukraine. It would be no bad thing, continued the revanchist guru, for Russia to be sliced into three sovereign entities, with eastern Siberia colonized by vibrant West European youth, the majority, preferably, fevered Polish Catholic nationalists, to secure the territory’s economic future.

Vladimir Putin, clearly, was no mute spectator to the bubbling turmoil in Kiev’s Maidan, with the European Union and the American great and good stoking the embers into an uncontrolled blaze. The putsch that followed sent President Yanukovych fleeing to Russia. A transfixed world waited for the bugle call of triumph. Putin, responded with the speed and decisiveness of a chess grandmaster: Russian special forces entered Crimea, disarmed Ukraine’s military bases with the loss of a solitary Ukrainian life, maintained order with help from the local citizenry, turncoat police and military formations, while the Crimean legislature made a swift declaration of independence, followed by an overwhelming affirmation to join the Russian Federation, both confirmed with equal dispatch by a referendum witnessed first-hand by the Austrian member of the European Parliament, Ewald Stadler, and other observers of repute.

The constitutional process was appropriately sealed in one of the most ornate rooms in the Kremlin; rhapsodic expressions of public joy in Moscow and other Russian cities greeted the historic event. Gorbachev, the Cold War peace-maker, told of his delight at Crimea’s return to the Russian family, the 60-year separation — ordained by Nikita Khrushchev in 1954 — coming to an end. Crimea was where the Wehrmacht and the Red Army stretched each other’s utmost limits of courage and endurance in a year-long struggle for supremacy. So, the Crimean soil is as sacred to Russian memory as the epic sieges of Moscow and Leningrad and the epic battles of Stalingrad and Kursk. Co-habitation with Nazi sympathizers strained credulity. Brussels, said a knowledgeable European commentator, watched “in shock and awe”. Checkmate! Hubris had led to entrapment. Increasing numbers of Europeans view their Union through a glass, darkly. Its bureaucracy — overwrought, overweight, overpaid and intellectually under-resourced — would appear to look to the dodo for inspiration.

Ukraine’s crisis bears more than a passing resemblance to the subcontinent in 1971: West Pakistan for western Ukraine, East Pakistan for eastern Ukraine; the Nixon administration resolutely opposed to self-determination for the Bengali East Pakistan, callously indifferent to its genocidal trauma, blamed India for the catastrophe. As America’s five billion dollar democracy project for Ukraine turns to dust, the country’s political configuration going forward is uncertainly poised. The violent death of its fascist strongman, Oleksandr Muzycko, coupled with the punishing financial constraints accompanying the International Monetary Fund bailout package, not to speak of Kiev’s intensifying war on terror in eastern Ukraine, encouraged with unbridled zeal by the Obama administration, could portend Ukraine’s free fall into a failed state. Three centuries ago, Alexander Pope composed these prescient lines: “Lo! thy dread Empire, Chaos! Is restor’d; / Light dies before the uncreating word; /Thy hand great Anarch! Lets the curtain fall; /And Universal Darkness buries All.