A few shades of grey in a black and white picture
This piece is about what is going on in Ukraine, how it started, and, perhaps, consider what should be done to restore peace in Europe.
The starting point was the declaration of President Putin that Russia was undertaking a ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine to protect Russian inhabitants of that country against genocidal attacks. Soon the purpose of regime change in Ukraine was also included; the present Ukrainian regime was characterised as displaying Nazi tendencies and being anti-Russian. These conditions, according to Putin, left the Russian leadership no choice apart from interfering in the way they did.
I am sure Putin’s declaration was drawn up in consultation with his legal experts. The declaration avoided the use of the term ‘war’ and the subsequent measures taken by Russian authorities against Russian citizens publicly protesting against ’war in Ukraine’ proved that such a sharp distinction was considered very important. What we have witnessed since in various Ukrainian regions utterly invalidates the distinction.
But even the categorical prohibition against starting a war knows a few exceptions, the most obvious of which is military, warlike intervention to stop genocide. The exception may not be universally accepted, but there is, I suppose, a wide consensus to tolerate such interventions particularly in flagrant cases of genocide. Are we dealing with such a case at present? The Russian charge concerns primarily the treatment of Russian-speaking Ukrainian citizens who are subjected to a stringent regime of measures, laid down in Ukrainian law, to prevent the use of Russian and enforce the use of Ukrainian in a wide range of circumstances. The Ukrainian Government and Parliament are seriously at fault in this case, in my view, and Western powers are very much to blame for closing their eyes to it. On the other hand, it stretches the definition of genocide inordinately to make it cover these Ukrainian measures.
Another and more controversial exception against the prohibition of the type of action undertaken by the Russian Government is the question of legitimate self-defence against vital threats, more in particular the right to deliver a pre-emptive strike in cases where the vital interests of a state are threatened. I belong to those who feel that such pre-emptive strikes cannot in all circumstances be excluded. This question is more difficult to answer, because it requires a comprehensive understanding of the political and historical ramifications of the present situation. The position of the Ukrainian Government is that Ukraine is an independent and sovereign state which is free to decide about its foreign relations, including alliances it wants to belong to. This position, basically, is supported by dominant Western opinion and Western governments.
As I have argued previously, such an approach is narrow-mindedly legalistic and completely disregards the political and historical aspects of the present conflict. It does not contribute to the promotion of peace. A few words about this.
The present Ukrainian state came into being in 1991 as the result, not of any democratically legitimated process, but of a coup engineered by the president of the Russian republic, El’tsin, and the communist boss of the Ukrainian Soviet republic, Leonid Kravchuk, united in their wish to get rid of Gorbachev, the president of the USSR. The other Soviet republics who had not been consulted about this démarche, accepted the inevitable and in most of them the local leader of the communist party re-invented himself as president of an independent state. Nazarbaev in Kazakhstan is the most typical example. The usual scenario was that the most powerful members of the old communist nomenklatura acquired control of the key positions in the national economy and in public administration, while the country’s leadership managed, with varying degrees of success, to maintain some kind of control over these new oligarchs. In Ukraine this scenario failed to be realised and the actual control of government fell into the hands of lobbies of oligarchs, who utilised governmental power primarily to foster their business interests. Compared to other non-Russian former Soviet republics, Ukraine’s progress on the road towards building an effective and law-based state was very unimpressive, to the extent that some foreign observers wondered whether it should not be considered a ‘failed state’.
The fundamental reason, I believe, for this poor performance was what one could call a birth defect in the genesis of the state. Ukraine’s past had been as a Russian province, it had no glorious history to look back on, the Ukrainian language was the only thing it could claim as its heritage. Moreover, its borders were the result of unhappy political incidents. Shortly after the Revolution of 1917 the Soviet Government embraced a policy of full support for national independence and self-determination, provided, however, that this would be the will of the people, which was said to be expressed in its pure form by the local communist party. This allowed the establishment of the USSR, in which actual power belonged to the strictly centralised CPSU. Instead of assigning only Ukrainian-speaking areas to the new Ukrainian Soviet republic, several Russian-speaking regions were also added. (Putin was ridiculed when he argued that Lenin stood at the cradle of the Ukrainian state, but he had a point.) And in 1984 Khrushchev, on the occasion of the 3rd centenary of the treaty of Pereiaslav, where the hetman of the Cossacks (Bogdan Khmelnitskii) recognised the supreme power of the Russian tsar, made a present to the Ukr.SSR of the Crimea, which had never been part of Ukraine in the past, did not share its history, and where very few Ukrainians lived.
One of the cruel ironies of the recent developments is that Putin has succeeded in something no Ukrainian leader has been able to achieve – to unite the population of Ukraine around a common theme. Russia’s chances of having a more co-operative regime in Kiev have become quite small now. We may disagree with Russian concerns, but many of these are widely shared by the Russian population. One is that for Russians, Ukraine is not a foreign country; Russians and Ukrainians have mixed widely for centuries and the sense of fraternity is real (of course, you should not start a war against your brother.) The idea that Ukraine would become a member of NATO is a Russian nightmare; is that so unreasonable?
The Russian invasion has set us all, including Russia, back and has made a solution to the difficulties between the two countries almost impossible. Because even if Ukrainian resistance and Western support would force Russia to admit defeat, it will be nothing more than a temporary ceasefire; I doubt whether it will do Ukraine much good and Russia will be left as an angry and offended loser.
My pessimism is compounded by the way the West, in particular the US, have continued to handle the crisis until now. They seem to have done everything possible to increase Russian fears of encirclement and made no effort to deflate tensions.