Contradictions over Ukraine

Western criticisms of Russia’s move into Ukraine’s Crimea region reek of double standards. In the first place, Moscow was simply moving to regain control of a pro-Russian territory it had rather generously handed over to Ukraine back in 1954 when conditions were very different.

Its move is criticized as a breach of international law and a violation of Ukraine sovereignty. So the arbitrary 1954 Soviet move was in accord with international law and sovereignty? Besides, Western powers have often moved much less politely and with much less justification to take over territories belonging to others.

The contradictions over Ukraine are even greater. Much of what is Ukraine today would never have existed if not for the creation of the Soviet Union. The czars had decreed it was part of Russia and saw it as the cradle of Russian language and culture. It was the early Soviets who decided that minorities should be allowed to have their own republics and autonomous regions.

So there was irony in seeing Ukrainian protesters pulling down the statues of Lenin, the man who had given Ukraine its freedom, even if it was only administrative freedom under overall Soviet control.

Arbitrarily included in that administrative unit was a large slab of purely Russian population concentrated mainly in the east. Indeed it was so pure that in the 1960s I was able to drive through Ukraine from Moscow to the Black Sea without feeling I had even left Russia. Only in the west, where Polish influence was strong, did one see signs of a distinct culture and language, and even that owed its origins to Russia.

In the capital, Kiev, the Russian language was dominant, though subsequent Soviet cruelties and oppression had pushed some to embrace an anti-Russian, Ukrainian nationalism. (I too was a minor victim, being dogged constantly by KGB agents fearing no doubt that somehow I too might be out to encourage Ukrainian nationalism.)

With the 1991 Soviet breakup, these anomalies came to the surface. For the most part, Russian-speakers in the now independent former Soviet republics accepted domination, sometimes unfair, by the non-Russian speakers. But there were exceptions. One close to Crimea but seemingly ignored (or maybe even forgotten) by those protesting Crimean events was in a breakaway region in the Transnistria region sandwiched between Moldavia with its Romanian-based culture and the western border of Ukraine.

There the pro-Russian population had decided they wanted independence, and after a brief war managed in 1992 to establish what they call the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic, complete with its own independent government, economy, army and even national anthem.

Moscow gives some support to the fledgling state, and tries to help it gain international recognition. But it has survived mainly on its own. No one can claim it is a product of Moscow expansionism. Nor that its existence is a breach of international law.

It is, after all, a product of an important Western principle, namely the right to self-determination — particularly when people are willing to fight and suffer for it. Yet, in all the belligerent Western words over Crimea, I have not seen any serious mention of this important precedent.

What we do see mentioned, constantly, is the precedent of Russia and Georgia going to war in 2008 over South Ossetia. There the former Soviet Union had for convenience split up a pro-Russian minority people, with those to the south of the Caucasus ranges dumped into the Georgian republic as an autonomous region.

When Georgia made its foolish effort to end that autonomy by force, and Moscow retaliated with force, Western criticism of Russian “aggression and expansionism” went into overdrive, with no regard for the historical background (Ossetia’s rare culture has no relation to Georgia), who had started the fighting and what would have happened to the pro-Russian population there if Georgia had succeeded.

Do we in the West really need these kinds of knee-jerk, anti-Moscow reactions?

Breaking its post-Berlin Wall collapse promises not to try to challenge Moscow’s influence in East Europe, the West now seeks to embrace even former Soviet republics. With the breakup of Yugoslavia the Western powers have already shown their willingness to encourage dubious moves and people in order add even more to the territories under their control.

While the recent protests to overthrow an incompetent pro-Russian Ukrainian regime involved honest citizens upset by government corruption and mismanagement, they have included anti-Semitic, pro-fascist elements similar to those that assisted Hitler in an attack on Russia that had left close to 20 million dead.

After seeing these people involved in the creation of the current anti-Russian regime in Kiev (for a while they even tried to ban use of the Russian language), can we really expect Russia today to roll over and play dead today over the fate over Crimea, where even by the standards that the West imposes on others it has a strong case?

Gregory Clark was first secretary in Australia’s Moscow embassy during the early 1960s.

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