Crimea: Danger of wider conflict

Vladimir Putin is unlikely to back down over Crimea, writes Eddie Ford

There was a collective sigh of relief around the world when Russia’s deadline for Ukrainian forces stationed in Crimea to either defect or surrender came and went in the early hours of March 3. Despite the passing of the ultimatum that never was, the situation in Ukraine remains extraordinarily unstable.

At the moment, the United States administration and its European Union allies are locked in a war of words with the government of Vladimir Putin - testing each other’s diplomatic and political defences. Having said that, the rhetoric coming out of the US is noticeably more aggressive than that adopted by the majority of EU countries. Hence John Kerry, the US secretary of state, has condemned Russia’s “incredible act of aggression” and violation of international law in ordering Russian troops to move outside their permanent naval bases in the Crimea, where there is an ethnic Russian majority - sentiments echoed by Nato’s secretary-general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, former leader of the stridently rightwing and pro-US Liberal Party in Denmark. Kerry has also claimed that Putin is “working hard” to create a “pretext” for a further military encroachment into eastern Ukraine.

Meanwhile, the Kremlin continues to construct an alternative universe where Russia’s de facto dissection of Ukraine never really happened. Rather, Putin would have us believe that the 16,000 Russian troops surrounding the Ukrainian bases in Crimea are merely “local self-defence forces” - and the fact their uniforms bear a striking resem­blance to those of the regular Russian army is merely a coincidence, as they could be purchased anywhere. Sure, Vlad, very convincing. Warming to his theme, he said any action taken by Russia would be “legitimate” as op­posed to western interventions in Libya, Afghanistan and Iraq, which were unau­thorised by the UN security council. In fact, he claimed that Russian’s Crimean intervention was actually a “humanitar­ian mission” - though, of course, the Russian government reserved the right to use force in the “last resort” if “law­lessness” spread throughout Ukraine.

With regards to the deposed Viktor Yanukovych, he is the “legitimate” president of Ukraine who was overthrown in an “unconstitutional coup” - but sadly, Putin added, he has “no political future”. Russia would not recognise the results of elections in Ukraine, he continued, which were held under the current conditions of “terror”. We also discover that Dmitry Medvedev, the prime minster of Russia, has ordered that work on the long-discussed project to build a 4.5-kilometre bridge connecting Russia with Crimea across the Straits of Kerch should begin. Yes, Russia has plans for Crimea.

Fascist coup?

So let us deal with the most pressing question - was there a fascist coup or Banderaite takeover? Inevitably, George Galloway has already taken to Twitter to denounce the “fascist and ultra-nationalist coup” in Kiev. It is certainly the case that the groups that ran and policed Euromaidan - such as Spilna Sprava (Common Cause), Pravy Sektor (Right Sector), Patriots of Ukraine, Svoboda, etc - clearly fit the ‘fascist’ description. That is, groups of rightwing, anti-Semitic, non-state fighting squads that exist to destroy anything that passes for leftwing politics and resolve the crisis gripping the top of Ukrainian society in a negative fashion. These were the groups or people that in the main took on the riot police, organised the demonstrations and chased off those leftwingers brave (or foolhardy) enough to turn up at Independence Square.

In which case, how do we characterise Euromaidan, etc? Well, the description that seems closest to reality is that of an orange-brown movement - one that covers a wide range of forces from pro- EU liberals and the hard right merging into the far right and fascistic milieu. What is vital to recognise when looking at the ultra-nationalistic groups is that we are not dealing with fringe groups or movements. For instance, Svoboda is the fourth largest party in parliament - it won 10.44% of the vote in the 2012 parliamentary elections and secured 37 seats (Svoboda subsequently joined a formal coalition with two centre-right parties to form the parliament’s collective opposition). In other words, Svoboda has a mass base.

Another point to stress is that the hands of the CIA are all over Euromaidan and the orange-brown ‘revolution’ in Kiev - for all the role played by spontaneity and chance, at least in the beginning. Unlike Occupy, with Euromaidan there was no ‘handy-handy’ self-organisation based on ‘consensus democracy’. Nothing like that. Exactly who gave the tactical and strategic advice? Just as pertinently, remembering we are in semi-impoverished Ukraine, who paid for the free kitchens and free medical services? You do not have to be to be a genius to work out the background story. After all, the US has got these sorts of protest movements down to a fine art.

Events in Ukraine have highlighted a general theoretical deficiency on the left. We have all read our Karl Marx and we tend to think automatically of the bourgeoisie as a class safely ensconced in power, which has therefore given up mobilising the masses. But looking back on the second half of the 20th century and later, we can see that this is a mistaken approach. What about the Santiago housewives coming out on the streets in 1973? Everybody now knows that this was an operation carried out by the CIA. You could argue that this sort of operation becomes so standard post-1989 that the CIA almost became lazy by giving it a colour name - orange in Ukraine, pink in Georgia, cedar in Lebanon, the aborted 2006 ‘Denim Revolution’ in Belarus, etc.1


Returning to Ukraine, the US stance is predicated on wider geopolitics - not just about manipulating political discontent in that country. More precisely, it is about squeezing Russia which has refused to become a neo-colony under Putin - who is determined, for good and for bad, not to fall under US hegemony. Hence Russian backing for the Assad regime in Syria and the fact that it is still playing footsie with Iran and Venezuela - not to mention its continued support for Cuba (just about). In other words, Russia is still a thorn in the side of US imperialism. But with Ukraine’s orange-brown ‘revolution’. Moscow saw a valuable asset being ripped away from it - therefore something had to be done, quickly.

From this Russian perspective, Crimea is not just a peninsular, but where the Russian fleet needs to be based if it is to be a global navy - ie, have access to the Mediterranean. No way is Russia going to forego that without a fight. The Kremlin’s behaviour in Crimea raises the possibility that it could do the same, when push comes to shove, in the Donbass region and other heavily populated Russian parts of Ukraine.

However, the provocative and inflammatory actions of the Kiev government itself virtually guaranteed that the situation would escalate, especially in Crimea. One of the first acts of the parliament, after booting out Yanukovych, was to vote on February 23 to scrap the 2012 policy guaranteeing official status for any language spoken by more than 10% of the population in any one region. This was perceived, understandably, as a direct attack on ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers in general. Showing that the Kiev administration is not totally reckless, Oleksandr Turchynov on February 28 vetoed the move to repeal the 2012 law - he ordered the drafting of a new law and spoke of the need to “accommodate the interests of both eastern and western Ukraine and of all ethnic groups and minorities”. Quite predictably, he had come under strong pressure from the European parliament, which ‘reminded’ Turchynov that new legislation must be adopted in “accordance” with the country’s obligations under the European charter for regional or minority languages.

Anyhow, what are going to be the “serious consequences” for Russia that John Kerry spoke about? The easy answer: almost nothing. Maybe ejection from the G8 - so what? Will the US seize Russian assets - absolutely not. Will the west stop buying Russian oil and gas - you must be joking. Of course, thanks to the carelessness of UK deputy national security advisor Hugh Powell, whose papers were read with the aid of a zoom lens outside Downing Street, we know that Britain will “not support, for now, trade sanctions” or “close London’s financial centre to Russians”.

In fact, there is evidence of a growing rift between the US and EU over Ukraine - with the UK government stuck very awkwardly in the middle, but bending slightly towards Europe and the stall set out by Angela Merkel. Germany, to put it mildly, is extremely reluctant to come down hard on Russia, its number-one trading partner, on whom it relies for its domestic energy - like other EU countries, it obtains almost 40% of its gas and oil from Moscow. France too enjoys a lucrative financial relationship with Russia, being contracted to build two valuable Mistral-class warships for the Russian navy. Is it any wonder that Vladimir Putin is so assured at the moment?

However, the potential for military conflict remains, even if does not lead to an all-out war. Though the west has absolutely no desire to intervene militarily in Ukraine, well aware of the acute dangers that would pose for international stability, it could find itself doing so anyway if the country goes into meltdown. Take a look at Syria, where the west is supplying military equipment to the opposition - many sections of which are more concerned with fighting each other than Assad’s forces. It is not inconceivable that such a pattern could repeat itself in Ukraine.



1. Also known as the ‘jeans revolution’ or ‘cornflower revolution’ - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jeans_Revolution.