Small sighs of relief in Ukraine

If the world’s share markets are any guide, world opinion has decided that the crisis in Ukraine is not quite as bad as was feared a couple of days ago – markets have recovered the ground they lost on Monday. This despite the fact that Russian troops appear to still have Crimea firmly in their grip, and Russia yesterday test-fired an ICBM, just to remind everyone of its formidable arsenal.

The two sides at least are talking, and Vladimir Putin’s press conference yesterday, although rambling and filled with tenuous claims, is being interpreted as a step away from further escalation.

For what it’s worth, that seems right to me. Pundits are often seduced by the idea of war; our sense of the dramatic makes us imagine Russian tanks driving across central Ukraine, just as they did to drive out the German invaders 70 years ago. But that chance of that happening was always negligible.

Crimea, of course, is a different story. It’s now Russia’s to do what it wants with. But I’m still not convinced that Putin is set on outright annexation. While he’s certainly got that as a fallback position, I think he’d settle for comprehensive autonomy and guarantees for the Russian military facilities there – provided talks with Kiev can find some common ground.

The most interesting thing in the last couple of days, however, is the lack of any serious movement in Ukraine outside of Crimea towards seeking Russian assistance. Reports suggest that even among the Russian-speaking population of eastern Ukraine there is considerable resentment at Russian interference and a strong sense of Ukrainian patriotism.

For the government in Kiev, the important thing is to foster that unity and not antagonise its citizens in the east. No doubt it now regrets the decree last week removing the privileges for minority languages, which Russian speakers (not unreasonably) interpreted as a direct threat. It can’t afford more mistakes on that scale.

There’s plenty of good analysis of the situation going around, from different perspectives. The pick of it is probably Timothy Snyder in the New York Review of Books. His view of the new Ukrainian leadership is a little on the rosy side, but it’s chock full of interesting and important information. And his conclusion, in my view, is spot on:

Whatever course the Russian intervention may take, it is not an attempt to stop a fascist coup, since nothing of the kind has taken place. What has taken place is a popular revolution, with all of the messiness, confusion, and opposition that entails.

For a more pro-Russian take, read two pieces from the Guardian on Monday: one from veteran Russia expert Jonathan Steele, and one from Australia’s own Malcolm Fraser. Both argue that part of the blame for the situation has to be laid at the door of NATO’s drive to expand eastwards, which has provoked Russian (and pro-Russian Ukrainian) fears and unnecessarily destabilised eastern Europe.

I think this is basically true, although it also has to be said that Russia is now giving a good demonstration of why its neighbors might be attracted by NATO membership. And Fraser in particular seems to have partaken of Mr Putin’s kool-aid, giving credence to a description of the Kiev revolutionaries as “pro-fascist, pro-nazi, anti-Jew.”

But it’s worth noting that Steele and Snyder don’t materially disagree about the facts of what’s happening in Ukraine. That’s what makes their different apportionings of blame worth reading, because there’s plenty of blame to go around.

Although they start from different positions, intelligent pro- and anti-Russian analysts often reach the same conclusions. Compare also Anatol Lieven, who claims that “Western governments … have acquiesced to the overthrow of an elected government by ultra-nationalist militias,” and Alexander Motyl, who calls Putin’s Russia “fascistoid” and seems to think that Russian occupation of the whole country is a possibility.

Yet both agree that war is a losing proposition for everyone and wiser counsel will, most probably, prevail. I think Lieven has a more acute sense of the limitations of Russia’s power, saying “It is now obvious that Ukraine as a whole cannot be brought into the Eurasian Union, reducing that union to a shadow of what the Putin administration hoped.” But Motyl has latched onto the important point about national feeling in Ukraine’s east:

[E]ven the country’s top oligarchs, all Russian speakers, have condemned the invasion and rejected partition. When the crisis ends, Ukraine will be stronger and its diverse population may finally possess all the features of a modern nation. Ironically, Putin might accomplish what Ukraine’s elites have thus far failed to achieve: effective state building and genuine nation building.

I think it’s going too far to describe Russia’s moves so far as an “invasion”, and with any luck that will remain the case. But it’s all sufficiently tense that a miscalculation on either side could still lead to things going very wrong very quickly.

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