Millennium Post

It’s back, the cold war

The manner in which every global crisis is covered in the media, both Western and local, gives away the subterranean politics beneath the moves, points towards the biases that go farther and deeper than what could be ascribed as the near and immediate reasons behind the problems. Case is point is the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, particularly over its energy-rich southeastern autonomous region of Crimea, which, as history tells us, has a fondness and bonding with Russia, going back to centuries. Yet, for an ordinary reader, unaccustomed to the shared past of the Crimean peninsula and its big Russian neighbour, what the American and European press offers is a cocktail of half-truths, if not outright lies, to seriously damage Russia’s case.

Several important Western newspapers, chiefly the New York Times, Washington Post, even UK’s The Guardian, have, in essence, obfuscated the real reasons behind Vladimir Putin’s so-called ‘escalation’ of military presence in Crimea. Now after the region has voted for secession from Ukraine, a referendum on which is due as this edition goes to print, myriad factors and forces are coming to fore, influencing the turn of events. But firstly, history lessons that matter.

Ukraine is a result of balkanisation of the Soviet Union. Formerly, a USSR semi-autonomous republic, the hasty crack-up in 1992 brought into existence number of sovereign countries, including Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, among others, with cultural, linguistic and territorial disputes looming large. The fault lines still remain, as is evident in the present Ukrainian crisis. While eastern Ukraine, including Crimea, has majority of ethnic Russians (25 per cent of the population), western region has ethnic Ukrainians, and dominated by Wsternised upper and middle classes in Kiev, who are more inclined towards shifting gears and increasing dependence on European Union and USA. Taking Poland as the route to European and American capital comes as the natural alternative to this aspirational class, despite violence of Second World War that had seen Ukrainians murdered by ethnic Poles. But thirst for markets induces amnesia. 22 years of independence from Russia, however, hasn’t loosened all ties with the mother country, with ethnic Ukrainians having prominent positions in Kremlin, and vice-versa in Rada, the Ukrainian parliament. Ousted former president Viktor Yanukovych was elected in a free and fair election in 2010, even though the West has been trying to muscle its way into Ukraine’s domestic politics, a section of which has been seeking to emerge out of Russian shadow. Hence, mixed reasons for the Orange Revolution of 2004, which saw demonstrations at Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) in Kiev, a repeat of which has happened since November 2013.

The east/west divide in Ukraine is most evident in the meandering governmental bents that reflect the dominating current of the times. Its extreme dependence on Russia for gas and energy notwithstanding (Ukraine is the transit country through which Russian natural gas pipelines reach Europe), Kiev, in its quest for wobbly economic autonomy, had been flirting with European Union and American capital and markets. However, in November 2013, Yanukovych-led cabinet postponed an agreement announcing greater ties with the EU, keeping in mind the Russian interests in the region. Moreover, the move would have compromised Ukraine’s inclusion within Eurasian Customs Union, an alternative to Europe-heavy economic circuit,  thereby creating greater instability in the region. The cabinet’s decision was heavily contested by pro-Western protesters in Kiev, and the Maidan erupted once again, staging anti-Moscow demonstrations that claimed hundreds of lives. In February, Yanukovych was ‘ousted’, (reminiscent of the manner in which Egypt’s Mohamed Morsi, the popularly elected former president was thrown out) and a pro-West interim government, under Olexander Turchynov, was set up to oversee the dissolution of the crisis.

Fresh polls are due in May, in which oligarchs like former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, among others, will stake claim. But given the Crimean vote of secession, ethnic tensions are bound to flare up, splitting Ukraine from the middle. Once again, the EU/US-cheered agitations at Maidan will obfuscate a great majority of the counter-movements that are siding with Russia. Already, over hundreds of thousands of ethic Russians are fleeing Ukraine, fearing a heavy backlash from ethnic Ukrainians. In the restive regions of Donets, Lugansk, Kharkiv, protests against Maidan’s intentions have been staged and Ukrainian flag has been summarily ripped apart. Moreover, the fact that Maidan demonstrations had been hijacked by neo-Nazi groups and far-right rogues (Svoboda, Pravy Sektor) was also proved as the dissent became a one-size-fit-all platform to voice anti-Russian sentiments.

The Crimean peninsula was ‘gifted’ to Ukraine in 1954 by Nikita Khrushchev, since that hardly changed equations. Of course, Russia maintained its hold after the breakup of USSR in 1992, since this majority ethic Russian region is a military strategic point, with Russia’s Black Sea Fleet having its base for two centuries at Sevastopol. A lease agreement of 50 years was signed in 1992 that allowed Moscow to continue its fleet operations in the region, which Russia balanced out by offering heavy energy subsidies and using Ukraine as the gateway to Europe and quell the latter’s hunger for gas. Evidently, this natural symbiosis has been an eyesore for the West, which has coveted Crimean peninsula’s significant location ever since the fall of Soviet Union. Even for Russia, to construct pipelines entirely below the Black Sea bed and bypassing Ukraine would amount to a staggering $20 billion extra, almost the annual budget of the smaller country. Obviously, bankrupt European Union doesn’t quite have the financial muscle to salvage Ukraine from this imminent crisis and prevent it from permanently damaging its relations with Russia. On the other hand, EU-US are salivating at the prospect of gaining political and economic upper hand in this significant region and shift the balance of power once again towards themselves, cornering Russia chiefly, and contain the indomitable Vladimir Putin. Either way, terminal crisis for Ukraine will be the result of escalated confrontation between the old Cold War enemies, bringing back the same kind of mutual suspicion and heightened sense of animosity.

Militarily, this might mean the amplification of another arms race centred on energy assets and their acquisition, with unlikely partners in European Union and American Republicans raising the pitch of anti-Putin rhetoric. Moreover, gruesome episodes of historical violence will be exploited for petty gains, as NATO versus Russian forces might end up having a face-off in the near future. In sum, these are dangerous times, which might have long-term repercussions as far as global energy security and multipolarity of international relations are concerned.
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