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Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Ukraine: The frontline between East and West

The relations between East and West had worked so well, albeit for disagreements over Iraq and Georgia, that many observers and pundits thought that it would only be a matter of time before the former enemies became genuine partners, something that could augur well for global peace and stability. Despite their disagreements over Syria, both sides got on very well supporting the UN’s efforts for a negotiated settlement to the four year conflict( at least in principle though their actions on arming rival factions  tell a different story) and even collaborated to rid Damascus of nuclear weapons.

But events in Ukraine have brought the West and Russia on the brink of a major confrontation not seen since the cold war. Whilst the rest of the world looks on, the opposing sides are playing it out in Ukraine fighting for control of the strategic former soviet republic. It all started when the West engineered a coup that overthrew the pro-Moscow government of Viktor Yanukovitch and installed an interim regime headed by Oleg Turchinov and Arseny Yatsenyuk; pro-European  nationalists fiercely opposed to Russian influence. Their coming into power followed months of demonstrations in the capital Kiev after former president Yanukovitch ditched a trade agreement offered by the European Union in favor of one with Russia. Demonstrators in Kiev composed largely of nationalists and what Russia calls neo-Nazis and fascists took to the streets in what became known as the Maidan protests. There they camped, urged on by frequent visits by Western diplomats, politicians and mainstream media much to the chagrin of Yanukovitch and the Kremlin. In the end they toppled the government after deadly violence that claimed tens of lives and Yanukovitch fled to Russia. In the ongoing crisis, Moscow repeatedly warned of a major catastrophe with disastrous consequences for Ukraine and Europe but no one listened and the West, led by its propaganda press, dismissed Russia’s warnings as mere frustration of losing its closest ally and nostalgia of former soviet hegemony over Ukraine.

But when ethnic Russians clamored for autonomy and independence, caused by the new government’s abolition of Russian as the second official language coupled with perceived fears of domination by the new Ukrainian authorities, the drums of war started beating. Russia moved swiftly and occupied Crimea, later engineered a referendum which finally led to its secession and eventual incorporation, sixty years after it was given to Ukraine by soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. The new government in Kiev and the West accused Russia of invasion and swiftly imposed a range of sanctions and visa restrictions on Russian officials accused of orchestrating the Crimean referendum. Putin stood his ground, thus sealing the fate of Crimea without a fight.

Whilst the situation has largely stabilized, now a part of federal Russia, tensions continue to run high in eastern Ukraine. It seems what everyone feared is beginning to unfold as pro-Russian groups have occupied government buildings only to declare “people’s republics”. This has plunged the Maidan government in Kiev into a state of paralysis, knowing not how to respond to one of several tests they have to grapple with. In a rather confusing reaction, which is now becoming a common feature of the Yatsenyuk regime, they have described the protestors in Donetsk, Luganshk and Kharkhiv as “terrorists” doing Russia’s bidding. In a further sign of their indecisiveness, they have been sending mixed messages to the protestors, offering to resolve the crisis peacefully, whilst on the other hand they are threatening to use force. A 48 hour ultimatum came and passed, but nothing happened and Yatsenyuk quickly shuttled to Donetsk to talk peace and offer some form of autonomy to the east (something he has refused in the past) in a desperate attempt to mollify the occupiers. But as things are turning out, the pro-Russian occupiers are not impressed and are even tightening the screws on Mr Yatsenyuk. Kiev has resorted to its usual rhetoric of blaming Moscow for the impasse, something Sergey Lavrov; the Russian foreign minister has flatly denied though they remain ambiguous about their intentions in eastern Ukraine where Moscow has amassed forty thousand troops and other military hardware. President Vladimir Putin has warned Kiev against using force to resolve the crisis in eastern Ukraine. 

By all indications the interim government of Ukraine is faced with the same situation that confronted former president Viktor Yanukovitch at Maidan when the nationalists led by Yatsenyuk, Turchinov and former heavyweight boxer Vitaly Klischko occupied government buildings and demanded the overthrow of the government whilst Western governments pulled the strings behind the scenes.  Faced with such public outrage in the east, the question is; will they order the Special Forces to storm the barricades? Or will they just sit and watch to allow the protests to die down?  Surely Putin would not allow the deaths of ethnic Russians especially at the hands of his arch-enemies in Kiev. And who knows whether the protests will lose steam as reported by the Western mainstream media, and their expert think tanks who maintain that the protests are unpopular with many ordinary eastern Ukrainians. They paint a picture of a few hardcore elements, usually old pensioners and war veterans nostalgic of the Soviet-era.

Whatever the case, Russia and the West are watching events closely in Ukraine. Any miscalculation from either side could trigger a large-scale confrontation. Already Nato is mauling the idea of beefing up its forces in frontline states such as Poland, Romania, Latvia and Moldova. If this were to happen, it would be a major escalation and Russia could feel vulnerable and move on eastern Ukraine or increase its troop presence in Trinistria, an ethnic Russian enclave in Moldova.

All this comes amidst great uncertainty in western Ukraine itself. The new government lacks the funds to stabilize the economy as expected aid and loans from the International Monetary Fund have not had much impact on the lives of ordinary people. Cuts to social services and pensions are expected to have a debilitating effect on people before the economy improves in the long term. Russia is not helping events either and recently increased gas prices by more than fifty per cent. Moscow has even threatened to turn off the taps on Kiev, in a further sign of economic pressure that is intended to keep the government on the edge. The interim government is equally worried that such economic warfare by Moscow is a deliberate act intended to weaken it and eventually lead to its downfall. Moscow seems to be deliberately piling the pressure from all possible angles in order to strangle the regime.

The interim government of Oleg Turchinov and Arseny Yatsenyuk had under estimated the challenges and seemed to be carried along by a false sense of hope that things will work out very well. Yanukovitch might just be laughing in amusement at what his enemies are going through.  What they had failed to realize was that Ukraine was too weak to unilaterally disengage from its bigger neighbor without suffering disastrous consequences. Mr Yatsenyuk and co in Kiev was just riding on nationalistic sentiments to demonize Russia and the pro-Russian president in the hope that the West will wholeheartedly jump to their aid. But it has turned out that with Russia, western power and influence has its limitations. 

The Russians wield a veto at the United Nations Security Council and no resolution against it will pass at the world body. Even the General Assembly vote sponsored by western powers which overwhelmingly censored Crimea’s referendum has turned out to be a stalemate at close examination. The West quickly claimed that the vote showed that Russia has been isolated by the international community. Despite the fact that several countries including, as expected, all Nato members, America’s allies and some countries from the developing world voted for the resolution, an equally significant number, including China, abstained. Sanctions imposed by western nations could have a negative impact on the Russian economy but could equally have a backlash on the Europeans who depend on Moscow for forty per cent of gas supplies. In addition, the Russians have repeatedly stressed that sanctions would not make them yield to western pressure. There again the scales are evenly balanced. The West cannot use military force, because Russia boasts of the largest nuclear arsenal on earth and a sizeable conventional armed forces and arsenal. Globally, Moscow has a number of allies which it can count on. Isolation is impossible.

Therefore, engagement and dialogue could help ease tensions and eventually resolve the crisis. Russia’s concerns and those of its brethren in eastern Ukraine cannot be ignored. The interim government should listen to these concerns, suspend the ban on the Russian language and decentralize power to the regions. Anything less could lead to the disintegration of the country and eventually to civil war which could draw in the super powers.

The West should stop its interference in Ukraine’s affairs and allow the country to have a non-bloc status as a buffer between Nato and Russia. It must not join the alliance but should be independent of Russia too. Anything less could lead to another cold war, and all indications are that the rest of the world is not interested in another clash of the titans.

 

Momodou Jallow is a journalist working at the state TV broadcaster GRTS. He holds a BSc degree in Political Science from the University of The Gambia

 

By Momodou Jallow

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