By Jonathan Power
March 25th 2014
President Vladimir Putin’s speech to both houses of the Russian parliament last week got bad notices. Anne Applebaum, the experienced Russian-watcher, wrote in her column in the Washington Post that it was “an imperial rant” and went on to say that “Nato should moves its forces from Germany to the alliance’s eastern borders”. Most Western governments also gave their own misleading interpretations of Putin’s speech.
In this column I’m not going to defend Putin up and down the hill. I profoundly reject the way the absorption of Crimea into Russia was carried out. One can’t mount a referendum on an issue as important as this with two weeks’ notice – the Scots have been discussing their planned referendum, set for later this year, for years.
Moreover, this referendum only had two questions: whether the voters wanted to go back to Russia or whether they wanted increased autonomy. It didn’t ask if voters wanted to remain part of Ukraine.
Then there is the agreement signed in 1994 when Ukraine’s large nuclear weapon armoury was sent to Russia. In it Russia agreed to recognize Ukrainian boundaries. That was a fair and honourable deal.
As for the question whether Russia had beefed up the number of its armed forces in Crimea, it clearly did although it was within the range set by the treaty establishing the Russian naval base. One should note too, as Putin said, no fatal shot was fired during the time leading up to the referendum. Nevertheless, Crimeans were clearly intimidated by the presence on the street of large numbers of Russian soldiers.
In the early 2000s, after negotiations with the Ukrainian government, Russia was unambiguous about the extent of Ukrainian sovereignty. As Putin said in his speech, “everyone had a clear understanding that by agreeing to delimitate the border we admitted de facto and de jure that Crimea was Ukrainian territory, thereby closing the issue”. But he has simply dropped this commitment.
Those are five good reasons for rejecting Putin’s way of handling Crimea.
Now for the rest of his inadequately reported speech:
First, he was as outspoken as anyone in the West in his critique of the politics of Ukraine: “I understand why the Ukrainian people wanted change. Presidents, prime ministers and parliamentarians changed, but their attitude to the country and its people remained the same. They milked the country, fought among themselves for power, assets and cash flows.”
“I would like to reiterate that I understand those who came out on Maidan, [Kiev’s square.], with peaceful slogans against corruption, inefficient state management and poverty.”
But then he went on to denounce the element in the protesters who “resorted to terror”- “nationalists, neo-Nazis, Russophobes and anti-Semites”.
Many in the West have played down the role of the extremists. But not everyone. In one detailed essay on its website early in March the BBC reported that in the events that led to the toppling of President Viktor Yanukovych, the far right minority at “key points of the demonstrations played an outsized…. role…..At times they appeared to be the driving force behind the demonstrations.” I would add that by unleashing violence at the end these far rightists brought the government’s fall to a head. The promise of Yanukovych to arrange early elections, made to German, French, Polish and Russia negotiators, was overridden. Most of the rest of the demonstrators and the West simply went along with the mob.
The BBC went on to say that the political party, Svoboda, to which the far right demonstrators belong, now has six positions in the new government, including deputy prime minister, general prosecutor and the minister of defence. The BBC also has noted that one of the first things the new government did was to revise Russian language rights.
Putin then went on to make a powerful case for the malign role played by Western governments. He reminded his audience of how the West itself had broken international law. It ignored the lack of a UN Security Council resolution authorising the bombing of Serbia, intervention in Kosovo and the invasion of Iraq.
The West, he said, “lied to us many times”. In particular, over the question of the decision by Nato to expand its reach right up to Russia’s borders, despite an explicit promise not to, made by the US to Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev. Moreover, as Putin said, “We have already heard declarations from Kiev about Ukraine joining Nato”. The West is “constantly trying to sweep us into a corner”.
The US and the EU need to look at the facts with a clearer mind. They must accept that Putin has his points. And they must start to be honest about their role in aiding the demonstrators at the same time as they were negotiating a new election pact. There will be no end to this crisis in Western-Russian relations until they do.
© Jonathan Power 2014