The tragedy that is Ukraine
M V Kamath
When the Soviet Union broke up way back in 1992, a whole lot of new states were born, like Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Ukraine. Few would have believed that the last of the lot, Ukraine, would make news in 2014. And yet that’s what has happened now. Ukraine is an unusual state. When the Soviet Union broke, among the top Soviet apparatchiks were Ukrainian leaders. They seem to be nowhere in the picture now, when their state is in deep trouble.
Ukraine, like say, Sri Lanka, has an ethnic problem. It can be divided into two parts: Western Ukraine, which is pro-European Union and pro-United States and Eastern Ukraine and its autonomous sub-division, Crimea, which are pro-Russia. The reason is simple. 25 per cent of Ukraine’s 45 million population are ethnic Russian. Russian, as a language is widely spoken in parts of the East and South, and it is the state’s second official language. As it has been said, East Ukraine is politically, religiously, linguistically, culturally and economically close to Russia. The division between East and West Ukraine is almost as great, if not greater than between the Buddhists and Tamil Hindus of Sri Lanka. But here the comparison stops.
Trouble arose in November 2013, when a proposed association agreement with the European Union was not signed by President Viktor Yanukovich, who was closer to Russia, and preferred to have better deals with Russia. Yanukovich was thereupon ousted from power. There were bouts of violence that left over a hundred dead. It has set Russia thinking. As Russia saw it, the proposed agreement between Ukraine and the EU could be the beginning of the marginalisation of Moscow, which it could hardly accept. For Moscow, Ukraine is strategically important and one can hardly blame Russia for taking a dim view of the proposed agreement, between the EU and Ukraine. It is well to remember that when the Soviet Union felt under similar stress in years past, it invaded Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Afghanistan in 1980. But when it comes to protecting one’s seeming interest, the US is not way behind, as was witnessed in Korea and Vietnam in the 1960s.
Ukraine is dependent on Russia in many ways. The Crimean peninsula was transferred, for instance, out of Ukranian command to function as an autonomous province. If it wants, it can claim total independence from Ukraine. The problem for Ukraine is it is dependent on Russia for its energy requirements and if it opts out of Russian friendship, it may have to pay dearly for Russian gas. So surely would the European Union too, which gets Russian gas through a pipeline passing through Ukraine. The saddest part of it all is that time was when there was noticeable unity between west and east Ukraine. How has this been now broken?
There must have been a lot of behind-the-scene discussions between the EU and western Ukrainian leaders over a long period of time that has resulted in the situation today with over 150,000 Russians fleeing their Ukrainian homeland. Does that mean that the Cold War has been resurrected? Russia has reportedly kept its army ready with some army exercises held along the Russian-Ukrainian border. Any army interference in Ukraine would be unacceptable but what other options does Russia have, when one of its strategically based neighbours is allowing itself to be courted by the US, EU and NATO? One would have thought that the end of the Cold War and especially after the break-up of the Soviet Union the West would not like to step on Russian toes. But Washington, in its greed, has never shown that it is capable of learning from past mistakes. If the United States had any sense it would have asked Russia whether there was any way it could be of some help: that would have been the height of diplomacy.
But no, Washington must show that it is the power and can handle Russia whichever way it suits its foreign policy. A war would be the height of stupidity: it would not be in America’s interest and certainly it would widen the East-West divide further. As matters stand, West Ukraine has not only ousted its president, but has stripped Russia of its standing as second official language. Where does one go from here? India has a role to play in such situations. It can act wisely as an intermediary, if that is, the US is willing to listen. Incidentally, Crimea has had a long history of warfare and it should surprise nobody that once again it has turned into a battlefield. As K Srinivasan, a former foreign secretary of India has noted, “the cold war is back in Europe with a vengeance.” The question is which power centre will prevail in Eastern Europe.
(The writer is a Senior Journalist and Former Editor of Illustrated Weekly.)