by Peter Jenkins
British people who take an interest in what is happening abroad are perplexed and worried by the recent turn of events in Ukraine. They have difficulty understanding why the US and EU have been showing so little sensitivity to Russia’s vital security interests in the Ukraine; and they are not convinced that adequate thought has been given to identifying where the West’s true interests lie.
Russia has good reason to care about the strategic alignment of its neighbour to the South. As a former British ambassador to NATO reminded an audience recently, Ukraine is to Russia a bit what Ireland is, or was, to Britain.
Western politicians talk as though Russia’s attachment to the “sphere of influence” concept is reprehensible. Yet the US has long seen Latin America as a US sphere of influence and has not hesitated to act to keep unwelcome intruders out. How many of those who have condemned the sending of Russian troops to the Crimea as unlawful, and a threat to peace, remember the US invasion of Grenada in 1983, which amused neither Grenada’s head of state, Her Majesty the Queen, nor her Prime Minister, Mrs. Thatcher? And that’s only one example of US unlawful acts in the Latin American sphere.
Similarly, for centuries British leaders not only regarded the island to the West as a potential back-door into Britain that must not be allowed to come under hostile influence, let alone occupation; they also held to the principle that the Channel ports opposite Britain must be kept out of the hands of potentially hostile powers.
Even that paragon of 21st century soft power, the EU, has a “neighbourhood policy”, which is a sphere of influence policy by another name.
Perhaps US and European leaders believe that the Kremlin is wrong to see NATO and the EU as potentially hostile. If so, they underestimate the effect on Russian strategic perceptions of the eastward expansion of NATO since the reunification of Germany, and of NATO plans to station on the Russian periphery missiles that could be targeted against Russian assets, not to mention the huge sums of money that the US continues to spend on renewing its weapons of mass destruction, and on modernizing delivery systems.
Whereas Russia’s interest in avoiding a strategic realignment of the Ukraine is obvious, the West’s interest in encouraging a realignment is not.
Have EU leaders asked themselves whether European electorates will thank them if the overthrow of a democratically elected Ukrainian government leads to the EU having to subsidize Ukrainian agricultural production, open up EU labour markets to millions of Ukrainians, and channel tens of billions of Euros from EU structural and regional funds into developing Ukrainian infrastructure? The idea of fast-track Ukrainian accession to the EU, which is now in play, will lead in precisely that direction, and sooner rather than later.
Are NATO leaders considering the wisdom of giving Ukrainian nationalists reason to expect a future in which a Ukrainian government is entitled to demand that British or French soldiers die in defence of Kiev?
And to what extent have Western leaders weighed the possible consequences of the provocations they have been offering to Russia? Do heavily-indebted European states want to have to start rebuilding their armed forces to guard against a renewal of Russian hostility towards the Western democracies? Are leaders confident that they can end the humanitarian crisis in Syria without Russian cooperation? Are they sure they can dispense with Russian influence in Tehran and Pyongyang? Do they want to bring to an end the era of multilateral cooperation at the UN and in other global institutions that the demise of Soviet communism ushered in?
The potential consequences of the West’s handling of this latest Ukrainian crisis are so serious that a change of course is a necessity. There is an alternative to multiplying provocations and threatening Russia with dire but still-to-be-determined “consequences” (“I shall do such things, I know not what” says Shakespeare’s King Lear before madness overwhelms him). Far more constructive would be for the EU and US to invite Russia and China, and representatives of all shades of Ukrainian opinion, to a conference to discuss long-term arrangements for the security, prosperity and neutrality of the Ukraine. (A guarantee of neutrality akin to that in the Austrian State Treaty of 1955 is, surely, a promising way forward.)
Such Great Power conferences have long been a feature of European diplomacy. On the whole, they have done more good than harm. A conference now can offer an opportunity not only to resolve the Ukrainian crisis but to do so within the wider context of East/West relations. It is time the West made an effort to understand the resentments that have been accumulating in Russia since 1990, and to address the trust deficit that has been growing where it should have been shrinking — as Russia’s actions in recent days demonstrate all too clearly.