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by Tara McCormack at

The current mainstream argument in the West about Ukraine is seriously misguided and dishonest. According to Western media and politicians, Russia has become an aggressive, reckless and expansionist power. Yearning for the glory days of the Soviet Union, Russia has ramped up tensions with the West with a series of bold and cunning moves directed by that inscrutable master strategist, Vladimir Putin.

Post-Cold War, so the story continues, the West had dreamed that a new and better world order was dawning, one in which the European Union and America could act as forces for good in the world, bringing order and human rights to all. But Russia squandered that opportunity. And now it is dragging Western nations back into the old world, forcing them to respond to Putin’s aggressive and reckless policies.

Virtually everything about this argument is false. The only thing that is true is that military and political tensions between Russia and the West have escalated to a level unprecedented since the end of the Cold War. But blame here lies, largely, with the West, not Russia.

The first thing to understand is that the Ukrainian crisis comes after a decade of escalating tensions. The crisis is therefore an expression of the worsening relationship between Russia and the West, rather than a cause of it. However, this worsening relationship cannot be attributed to the behaviour of Russia. In fact, it is the West that has embarked on a number of reckless and catastrophic follies that have had devastating effects on international stability. From the 1990s onwards, Western states have promoted the idea that state sovereignty should be conditional upon a state’s treatment of its population. Under this banner, the West has embarked on several military interventions, breaching sovereignty in the name of human rights in Bosnia, East Timor, Kosovo and, of course, Libya, where the catastrophic intervention of 2011 has opened Libya up to the Islamic State.

Kosovo was particularly significant. Russia had refused to support a United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution supporting the intervention, arguing that allowing human rights to trump sovereignty, as US attorney Kenneth Roth put it, would permit Western states to intervene at will in weaker states. Moreover, the bombing was conducted by NATO. This marked a change in the role of NATO, from a formally defensive institution to one that could be used to engage in aggressive military operations. Over a decade later, Russia did support UNSC resolution 1973, which paved the way for NATO to conduct a humanitarian intervention in Libya. However, NATO went beyond the mandate given by the UNSC, and aided the removal of Colonel Gaddafi from power with no thought as to what would happen next. Following this, Russia stated clearly that it would no longer support any similar Western initiatives and blocked UNSC resolutions over Syria. While many laughed when Putin cited the Responsibility to Protect doctrine when annexing Crimea, he was only reading from a script that was written in the West.

When it comes to Western interventions justified in hard security terms as opposed to humanitarian terms, you do not have to be a member of Putin’s inner circle to think the interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq were out of control and clueless. It is clear when one looks at Iraq that the US and its allies have destroyed a country on the basis of known lies for no clear reason (Saddam Hussein did not want to stop selling oil to the West), and the consequences are only getting worse. As Patrick Cockburn points out in his excellent new book on the Islamic State, immediately after 9/11 al-Qaeda was a marginal force. Today, the al-Qaeda offshoot IS and other related jihadi groups control vast territories containing millions of people.

NATO membership has been expanded regardless of the entirely legitimate fears and interests of Russia. However, as John Mearsheimer has pointed out, when in 2008 NATO announced that Georgia and Ukraine would become NATO members, it was a step too far for Russia. The Georgian War can be understood as a direct consequence of NATO’s provocative expansion.

Ukraine is a country of particular importance to Russia. A recent House of Lords report on the Ukraine crisis says that the West constantly misread Russia and failed to understand the importance of Ukraine. Yet in fact, Russia made it very clear (as it did over Georgia) that Ukraine joining NATO or moving closer to the EU was unacceptable. The EU deposed Ukraine’s elected head of state with no thought as to what the consequences might be in a complicated and divided nation. Speaking in November last year about the crisis, outgoing European Commission president José Manuel Barroso said: ‘We were perfectly aware of all the risks… I spoke with Putin several times, and he told us how important for him was the customs union, the specific role he saw for Ukraine.’ Thankfully, Ukraine is no Iraq, but the war there has already cost thousands of lives and destroyed thousands of homes.

In comparison, Russia’s aggressive military exploits have been very limited, and clearly linked to maintaining a buffer zone between itself and NATO. Now, one may think that this is not a good principle for international affairs and that powerful states have no right to control their neighbours. But do you think that Mexico would be free to join the Eurasian Union? Or Greece? Moreover, the real consequences of Russia’s intervention in Georgia, for example, are nothing compared to the devastating consequences of the West’s follies in the Middle East and North Africa. This is because Russian intervention in Georgia and Ukraine has been guided by a straightforward strategy: to establish control of a buffer zone.
What we have today is a strange kind of shadow of the Cold War. Tensions between the West and Russia are very high, and the current crisis in Ukraine is frightening because it creates a situation in which tensions can easily escalate. But what is lacking, certainly in the West, is any kind of public engagement with the conflict. The Cold War played a key role in both East and West in terms of giving meaning to a specific set of differing social and political arrangements; in this sense, the whole of society was involved in the conflict. Today, however, there is little evidence of such engagement. Rather, Western policy over Ukraine seems to be conducted largely at an elite level. Cameron’s bizarre off-the-cuff decision to send 75 military advisers to Ukraine was not done in reaction to public demands, but rather in response to a House of Lords report advising Britain to take more of a diplomatic role. I do not think that many British people would support a war in Ukraine, let alone a potential war with Russia.

There have been some half-baked attempts to talk up some kind of grand moral division between Russia and the West. For example, Western politicians attempted to use the Sochi Winter Olympics as an opportunity to bash Russia over its record on gay rights. Beyond the liberal media, this narrative utterly failed to take root in people’s minds. It’s simply not enough to try to recreate the existential battle of the Cold War. It is also unfair. For all Putin’s talk about the decline of the West and orthodox Christian values, the Russia of today is very different to the Russia of 40 years ago. It is going through rapid social changes. The BBC loves to present Russians as some kind of race apart, brainwashed by state media, listening to folk music and crying into their vodka about how great they once were. This is nonsense and should be ignored. Russians have internet access, including to the BBC (lucky them) and to international newspapers, and many more Russians speak English than Europeans do Russian.

Currently, there seems to have been a rare outbreak of common sense within the EU. It is beginning to recognise the need for a political settlement in Ukraine. Let’s hope a settlement is reached soon, one which will eventually lead to the EU and NATO limiting their ambitions in this part of the world and allowing Ukraine to decide its future for itself.

Tara McCormack is a lecturer in international politics at the University of Leicester.


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Mar 14, 2015 3:11 AM

This is pretty much spot on .