EDITORIAL by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
No winners in escalating Ukraine conflict
, September 13, 2014
The growing crisis in eastern Ukraine, where Russian military forces have apparently intervened directly in support of the armed separatists who were facing defeat at the hands of Ukrainian forces, marks a major escalation of a conflict which has been simmering since Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula in March.
Until now, Russia has denied direct military involvement in the conflict, although it has been arming and equipping the rebels. Its equipment and probably its military personnel were responsible for the shooting down on July 17 this year of the Malaysian Airline flight MH17, with the loss of almost 300 lives, including nearly 40 Australian citizens or residents.
Apart from Ukraine, the latest escalation of the conflict presents a major challenge to three separate parties: the European Union, Nato and the countries which signed the Budapest Memorandum in 1994, which guaranteed the territorial integrity of Ukraine. Foremost among these countries are Great Britain and the United States.
Back in 1994, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, it was in the interest of the major nuclear powers — Russia, the United States and Great Britain, in particular — to ensure that Ukraine did not end up becoming a nuclear state.
At the time, there were a large number of nuclear weapons on Ukrainian territory, a legacy of the Cold War.
In exchange for Ukraine surrendering nuclear weapons and signing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the major nuclear powers guaranteed Ukraine’s independence.
According to the memorandum, Russia, the U.S. and the UK confirmed that they would:
• respect Ukrainian independence and sovereignty within its existing borders;
• refrain from the threat or use of force against Ukraine; and
• refrain from using economic pressure on Ukraine in order to influence its politics.
Before the events of 2014, there had been tensions between Ukraine and Russia over Crimea and an island in the Sea of Azov, which lies between Ukraine and Russia in the Black Sea. These potential conflicts were successfully defused.
However, the popular uprising against a pro-Russian government in Kyiv, and the subsequent election of a pro-Western government, seeking membership of the European Union, and ultimately Nato, apparently prompted the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, to take further action.
Initially, he tried to destabilise the government of Ukraine by arming separatists in the east of the country, but then he exploited the majority Russian presence in Crimea to annex the province which had been part of Ukraine since the 1950s, in clear violation of the commitments which Russia signed in 1994.
While this action was almost universally condemned — except in Russia where support for Mr Putin is overwhelming — it had one unintended consequence: by diminishing the pro-Russian presence in Ukraine, it guaranteed the election of a pro-Western, rather than a pro-Russian government in Kyiv.
After Russia’s military intervention, the European Union imposed sanctions which appeared to have some momentary effect, and Russia reduced its military support for the separatists.
But with Ukrainian forces taking the offensive against Russia’s proxies in eastern Ukraine, and Crimea effectively cut off from Russia, Putin has apparently decided that only direct Russian intervention can prevent both a major military setback, and Ukraine’s increasing alignment with the West.
While Russia was concerned by the switch of central European countries such as Poland, Hungary and the Baltic States towards the West, it is fiercely opposed to Ukraine taking the same path.
The paradox is, however, that by annexing Crimea and occupying eastern Ukraine, it is accelerating the very trend it wants to reverse. Ukrainian leaders have sought direct Western military support over recent days.
Up to the present, the United States has imposed only limited economic sanctions on Russia, while urging its European allies to take stronger measures.
Months ago, the Europeans imposed targeted sanctions on Russia’s political leadership. At the same time, Russia, in retaliation against Western sanctions, banned for one year all meat, fish, dairy, fruit and vegetable imports from the EU, the U.S., Norway, Canada and Australia.
This has caused a collapse in fresh food prices in Western Europe, and distress for many farmers. The Europeans, on the whole, are reluctant to take further measures against Russia, because existing sanctions are already hurting their domestic economies.
The effect of Western sanctions has been to hit Russian consumers, who are having to pay higher prices for scarcer goods, and to hurt the Russian economy. The Russian economy, which depends on exports to the West of oil, gas and minerals, and relies on a steady inflow of capital for both business and infrastructure investment, is understood to have gone into recession.
What is not clear is how the escalating military conflict and tit-for-tat economic sanctions can come to an end. There are no winners in the current conflict in Ukraine.
Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.