Origins of the Crisis in the Ukraine

It is largely forgotten now – in time of war – that the Ukraine crisis began in 2013/14 and it came about as a result of actions by the European Union. The EU has been hell-bent on expansion eastwards from the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union. That expansionism was originally initiated by Britain, which was resolutely opposed to any developments tending towards the formation of a European state. The British worried that the EU was about to cohere around a re-united Germany and go from strength to strength. But the eastern expansionism was taken up by the EU with great enthusiasm and blended with the anti-Russian feeling in the new eastern members, Brussels busied itself with its new project to the detriment of consolidation. Britain discreetly looked on from its island before finally retiring from the European project – its work done – in Brexit. And the road to the east led inevitably to the Ukraine.

In a review of Professor Richard Sakwa’s book Frontline Ukraine, published in 2015, Professor Geoffrey Roberts of University College, Cork wrote in The Irish Times:

“When the first World War broke out Pope Benedict XV declared it the suicide of Europe. But Europe survived and was reborn, albeit after two World Wars and a prolonged cold war that threatened nuclear extinction. At the heart of this rebirth was the European Union and its project both to unify and to pacify Europe.

In this powerful account of the Ukraine crisis Richard Sakwa argues the EU has abandoned that peace project and allowed itself to become an auxiliary of NATO’s expansion into central and eastern Europe. Instead of seeking accommodation, compromise and engagement with Russia in relation to Ukraine, the EU leadership in Brussels has turned the issue of Ukraine’s “European choice” into an instrument to isolate and destabilise Vladimir Putin’s regime. The resultant dangerous confrontation between Russia and the West will divide the continent for at least a generation.

At the forefront of this development have been Russophobes in Poland, the Baltic States and other countries within the “new Europe”, who have imported into the EU their historic antagonisms with neighbouring Russia. Supported by resurgent cold warriors in the United States, the anti-Putin camp in Europe has demonised the Russian president and denied his country’s legitimate security interests and concerns. The contention that NATO and EU enlargement is no threat to Russia is belied by NATO’s military exercises on Russia’s borders and belligerent calls to arm Ukraine and increase western military spending.” (25.4.2015)

It is doubtful if such a plain presentation of the facts of the Ukraine conflict would be either sought, provided or indeed be permissible in the mainstream European media today.

The “Suicide of Europe” would be an apt title for how the continent, led by the EU, has put itself at the political and economic behest and mercy of Washington, in the call to arms for Ukraine. Europe is, in effect, allowing the most corrupt state in Europe which has a strong neo-Nazi movement, which routinely intimidates elected representatives, determine its important relationship with Russia and wreck its economy. The EU leaders have become putty in the hands of a former comedian/clown/actor, who is giving the performance of his life.

President Biden has made it clear that Europe must suffer great pain for the success of the war in Ukraine: “I know that eliminating Russian gas will have costs for Europe, but it’s not only the right to do from a moral standpoint, it is going to put us on a much stronger strategic footing.” His accomplice in Kiev, President Zelensky, with great moral authority, now rates the performance of European states in the war effort. And he does not rate Ireland highly, much to the embarrassment of the Taoiseach, despite its willingness to take in 200,000 Ukrainians and give much humanitarian (non-lethal) support. It is the lethal support that kills Russians that the Ukrainian President desires.

European leaders have only themselves to blame for the predicament they have got their peoples into. They have instigated moral hysteria not seen since August 1914 and the fact that Ukraine is shedding much blood for the geopolitical advance on Russia will not make it easy to shirk from the economic sacrifice required of the European working classes.

Washington looks on with self-satisfaction; It has now simultaneously curtailed the development of European/Russian economic relations and brought the continent firmly back into its sphere of influence, for California to remake in its own image and for US business to profit from.

The course of the EU, once it committed itself to unlimited expansion as the vanguard of NATO, was certain to end in some kind of catastrophe for the continent. And so it has proved.

Back in 2014 James Carden criticised the economic determinism of the EU’s “Democratic Domino Theory” that US administrations were supporting as an advance guard of liberal order expansion, and which,

“…posits that as Ukraine and the other former (Soviet) states integrate their economies into the larger European markets they will adopt Europe’s political and cultural norms. This transformation will, in turn, influence Russia’s internal political development and it too (somehow) will Westernise through the power of example. This, it should go without saying, is a remarkably foolish way of seeing the world. Yet the longer American policy makers adhere to this premise, the more they will end up endangering the long-term viability of the EU.” (America’s Ukraine Policy Disaster, National Interest, 2.7.2014)

Ukraine had left the USSR on 24 August 1991 and entered its post-Soviet period, which in some respects was not very different from its Soviet period. The Ukraine was a component of the Soviet state, within which it was functional. Its appearance as an independent state was not the result of national struggle. It came into being as a product of internal Soviet disintegration, courtesy of its last General Secretary, Gorbachev. It was actually the Russian Declaration of State Sovereignty which triggered a similar Ukrainian one. In the all-union referendum of March 1991 over 70 per cent of Ukrainians voted to preserve the Union. It was subsequent events in Russia that pushed Ukraine toward independence with the other republics.

The Ukraine had no long struggle for independence behind it, such as Ireland had when Britain denied it independence in 1919. Independence was more or less conferred on it through a simple vote.

Ukraine had its Western-inspired Orange Revolution and a Russian capitalist oligarch in exile (Berezhovsky), who had fallen out with oligarchs at home, founded a kind of Capitalist International (the Foundation for Civil Liberties, based in New York) and made the Orange Revolution the launching pad for an assault on what remained of the Soviet state. But the Orange Revolution essentially came to nothing. It was a revolution of corruption led by billionaires who had got their billions by plundering the economy of the Soviet state. These economic oligarchs had never functioned as competitive capitalists. They were wealthy through no effort of their own. The corrupt oligarchs fostered an idealism for the masses and used it for their own benefit. But the Ukrainian oligarchs, who did not claw their way to their positions through their own efforts, lacked the necessary skill to politically manage the masses and develop a functional state. The oligarchs failed to develop an oligarchy to follow on the successful British road of capitalist development. A prominent one, Julia Timoshenko, who led the Fatherland party, did not seize her moment of destiny and found herself in jail for embezzlement and corruption.

Eventually something like a normal election was held in the Ukraine, in 2010, which the EU did not declare to be invalid and a government was elected. It engaged in negotiation to fit the Ukraine into a wider economy. The illusions of the Orange Revolution were centred on the EU but the practicalities of the existing Ukrainian industrial economic base, with its requirement of cheap energy, directed it towards Russia. The Yanukovych Government, bargained between the EU and Russia about its economic future. If it linked itself with Russia, its economic development could continue without basic alteration. If it went to the EU, its industrial economy would be decimated, and it would be deprived of the favourable trading links it had already established with Russia. It put itself on offer to the EU for a sum that would compensate for the loss of industries that would not be viable in the EU and for the loss of subsidised energy from Russia. When the EU would not meet its terms, it turned back to Russia and the EU went frantic with the rage of the rejected. Its representatives went to Kiev, made propaganda, and helped to build barricades in the centre of the city, around Maidan.

The fact that the Russian Federation would erect tariff barriers against the Ukraine and charge it world market prices for energy if it joined the EU was presented as Russian intimidation of the Ukraine. But it was simply an expression of the fact that the Russian national economy, which protects itself from the EU/US, would have to extend that protection to its borders with the Ukraine if the Ukraine joined the EU—an EU which was contemplating a free trade agreement with the US, with NATO in the background. With the EU expecting the Ukraine to make sacrifices for the sake of being admitted to the European ideal and Russia making it clear that a Ukraine in a free trade relationship with Europe would encounter tariff barriers at the Russian border the Ukrainian Government accepted a Russian offer, which exceeded what the EU would put up. It was an offer that would enable Ukraine to preserve its industrial economy.

The occupation of the central square in Kiev, Maidan, began immediately. Fortifications were built in it and it became a site of pilgrimage for Western democracy. EU personnel went to Kiev in order to enhance the demonstrations into insurrection. Washington poured money in and took control of the insurrection. Snipers of mysterious origin – which the Maidan leaders were disinterested in discovering the source of – which killed around 50 people, galvanised the movement. They were positioned in Maidan held buildings and almost certainly were members of the right-wing Ukrainian nationalist groups, such as Right Sector.

The elected Government was overthrown by an insurrection in the capital, which was not representative of the country. It was like the action of the Paris mob at various points in the French Revolution – but without a Danton or Robespierre.

The EU leaders had become apprehensive about the consequences of what they were doing. They brokered a deal between the Government and the insurrection for the formation of a Coalition Government. “Fuck the EU” said Victoria Nuland, Obama’s Assistant Secretary of State. A leaked telephone call between Nuland and Geoffrey Pyatt revealed the US administration directing the coup and choosing the new Ukrainian government.

The EU compromise was brushed aside overnight. The insurrection was intensified. Government buildings were occupied. Suddenly there was a new Government supported by armed militias of various kinds. This was the February Revolution, instigated by the US, that overthrew the EU deal.

When it became public knowledge that Obama’s administration was directing the insurrection, Yanukovych did not call in the US Ambassador and expel him and his extensive entourage. That fact, more than anything else, demonstrated his unfitness to govern in the situation.

The EU suddenly discovered that it had been mistaken in thinking that the Kiev Government had been democratically elected. The White House declared authoritatively that President Yanukovych had stolen that election, and would steal the next election if left in place. The Maidan Insurrection claimed that it represented the will of the Ukrainian people—but it could not wait to demonstrate this at the General Election a few months ahead because, as an American spokesman explained, Yanukovych would steal that election as he had stolen the last election. And the EU did not repudiate the American assertion that the Government it had been negotiating a deal with was an unelected despotism.

Even at this stage the underlying cause of the destabilising of Ukraine and the overthrowing of its elected government was clear. The following sentence from a Guardian report let the cat out of the bag:

“The deposed Viktor Yanukovych, for all his incompetence, corruption and abuse of power, was the first president to oppose NATO membership in his election campaign and then persuade parliament to make non-alignment the cornerstone of the country’s security strategy, on the pattern of Finland, Ireland and Sweden. NATO refused to accept it.”

That is from a Guardian article by Jonathan Steele, of 2nd March 2014, ‘The Ukraine Crisis: John Kerry and NATO must calm down and back off.’ Steele pointed out that:

“Underlying the crisis in Crimea and Russia’s fierce resistance to potential changes is NATO’s undisguised ambition to continue two decades of expansion. Both John Kerry’s threats to expel Russia from the G8 and the Ukrainian government’s plea for NATO aid mark a dangerous escalation of a crisis that can easily be contained if cool heads prevail. Hysteria seems to be the mood in Washington and Kiev, with the new Ukrainian prime minister claiming, “We are on the brink of disaster” as he calls up army reserves in response to Russian military movements in Crimea…

He was over-dramatizing developments in the east, where Russian speakers are understandably alarmed after the new Kiev authorities scrapped a law allowing Russian as an official language in their areas. They see it as proof that the anti-Russian ultra-nationalists from western Ukraine who were the dominant force in last month’s insurrection still control it. Eastern Ukrainians fear similar tactics of storming public buildings could be used against their elected officials.

Kerry’s rush to punish Russia and NATO’s decision to respond to Kiev’s call by holding a meeting of member states’ ambassadors in Brussels today were mistakes. Ukraine is not part of the alliance, so none of the obligations of common defence come into play. NATO should refrain from interfering in Ukraine by word or deed. The fact that it insists on getting engaged reveals the elephant in the room: underlying the crisis in Crimea and Russia’s fierce resistance to potential changes is NATO’s undisguised ambition to continue two decades of expansion into what used to be called “post-Soviet”, led by Bill Clinton and taken up by successive administrations in Washington. At the back of Pentagon minds, no doubt, is the dream that a US navy will one day replace the Russian Black Sea fleet in the Crimean ports of Sevastopol and Balaclava.

Since independence, every poll in Ukraine has shown a majority against NATO membership, yet one after another the elites who ran the country until 2010 and who are now back in charge ignored the popular will. Seduced by NATO’s largesse and the feeling of being part of a hi-tech global club, they took part in joint military exercises and even sent Ukrainian troops to Iraq and Afghanistan.

It is not too late to show some wisdom now. Vladimir Putin’s troop movements in Crimea, which are supported by most Russians, are of questionable legality under the terms of the peace and friendship treaty that Russia signed with Ukraine in 1997. But their illegality is considerably less clear-cut than that of the US-led invasion of Iraq, or of Afghanistan, where the UN security council only authorised the intervention several weeks after it had happened. And Russia’s troop movements can be reversed if the crisis abates. That would require the restoration of the language law in eastern Ukraine and firm action to prevent armed groups of anti-Russian nationalists threatening public buildings there.

The Russian-speaking majority in the region is as angry with elite corruption, unemployment and economic inequality as people in western Ukraine. But it also feels beleaguered and provoked, with its cultural heritage under existential threat. Responsibility for eliminating those concerns lies not in Washington, Brussels or Moscow, but solely in Kiev.”

The coup d’état, which was managed by Washington, was strongly anti-Russian in sentiment. A process of Ukrainianisation of Russians in the Ukraine was announced with far reaching anti-Russian measures—measures directed against the large body of Russians living in the Ukraine. The Ukraine was a multi-national state while it was part of the Soviet Union and it remained a multi-national state after separating from the Soviet Union. That fact of life was not denied until a government whose personnel were chosen by the White House was installed through the coup in Kiev. Russian was an official language of the state with the Russian language enshrined in the Constitution of Ukraine, which declared that the state guaranteed the rights of Russians and other ethnic minorities. The first acts of the coup Government were to abolish the official status of Russian, and to treat what was hitherto regarded as the liberation of the Ukraine from Nazi conquest and tyranny as its subjugation to Russian conquest and tyranny. Ukrainian was declared to be the sole language of the state, and the anti-Nazi symbols were torn down. These acts naturally had consequences.

The American monitors chose to intervene at this point as things threatened to get out of hand and delayed the implementation of those measures for the time being. Moscow, not surprisingly, did not rush to recognise the anti-Russian Government established by coup d’état as legitimate. The EU threatened sanctions against those who did not promptly recognise the new Government in Kiev, without waiting on elections. It is now apparently a principle of International Law of the democratic era that a coup which overthrows an elected Government must be recognised at once as democratically legitimate.

The coup d’état by anti-Russian forces naturally disrupted the tenuous political consensus which had enabled the Ukraine to function as a state since it came into existence, when the Soviet Union was being broken up by Gorbachev and Yeltsin. The naked anti-Russianism of the coup and fear of Banderovtsy set off a process of disintegration in the Ukrainian state in the form of the Novorossiya secession. The US/EU said disintegration is not allowed—not in the Ukraine at any rate: even though the US/EU encouraged the disintegration of Yugoslavia, by fostering extreme nationalist developments.

When the Ukraine was destabilised by the anti-Russian coup, the Russian majority in the Crimean region organised a referendum for seceding from the Ukraine and they opted to transfer to the Russian Federation. EU spokesmen said the referendum was illegal because it was not conducted under the authority of the new anti-Russian Government in Kiev. Such a rule was not applied in Yugoslavia. The referendum was boycotted by Kiev loyalists, who declared that the 97% majority showed that it was rigged as well as illegal. The population balance in the Crimea is about 60% Russian, 40% non-Russian. However, if Kiev thought it could rely on the non-Russians to vote against secession, so that there would be a 60/40 result, the referendum would almost certainly have been contested.

The Crimean referendum was not challenged by force. This warded off the probability of the Russian naval base in the Crimea being surrounded by NATO forces. And that is, of course, ground for serious discontent in the expansionist EU. Instead, the Ukrainians hastily built a dam in the Kherson region that blocked 85 per cent of Crimea’s water supply, destroying its harvest in 2014.

The British Foreign Secretary then condemned Russia for engaging in a “sponsored war” in Ukraine. The characterisation of the war between the coup Government in Kiev, instigated and supported by the West, and the Donetsk and Lugansk Peoples Republics established by referendum, as a “sponsored war” depends on acceptance of the Kiev narrative that the Donetsk Republic is a fabrication of the Russian State operated by “Russians” rather than the authentic response of an actual Russian population to the anti-Russian action of the Kiev revolution. The people in the Donbas (short for Donetz Basin and comprising the Donetz and Lugansk regions) are over-whelmingly Russian-speaking. However, there were no separatist tendencies before 2014. In Donetsk and Lugansk it seems that Russian populations were provoked by the anti-Russian stance of the coup Government into electing their own governments.

When Poroshenko came to power after the coup he aimed to reunite Ukraine by military force, conceding that Crimea could only be recovered through diplomacy with Russia. Over 90 per cent of the Ukrainian army plus reservists were deployed to the south east to break the resistance to the coup government in eastern Ukraine. As Prof. Richard Sakwa noted, it was the Kiev government who began the anti-civilian warfare in the Ukraine in 2014:

“The Ukrainian armed forces had learned to avoid infantry combat, and instead launched air strikes and long-range artillery bombardments against apartment blocks and villages. This rained down indiscriminate fire on heavily populated areas, causing numerous civilian casualties. This was justified by alleging that the rebels placed their own ordnance next to civilian objects.” (Frontline Ukraine, p.164)

In response to the anti-civilian warfare of the Ukrainians, on 2 May 2014, Samantha Power, the great humanitarian US Ambassador at the UN, suspended “her revered ‘Responsibility to Protect’ doctrine and gave Kiev’s leaders a US license to kill. Lauding their ‘remarkable, almost unimaginable, restraint,’ as Obama himself did after (the massacre of several hundred trade unionists by Ukrainian nationalists in) Odessa, she continued. ‘Their response is reasonable, it is proportional, and frankly it is what any one of our countries would have done’.” (p.164)

A force of 100,000 bore down on eastern Ukraine, who were receiving no help from Moscow at this point. The Kremlin was seeking a diplomatic solution to the conflict in eastern Ukraine and Putin and Lavrov were accused of betrayal by the Russian population in what was fast becoming a “humanitarian catastrophe” with tens of thousands of deaths and 100,000 refugees fleeing the region. By August it was reported that 800,000 refugees had entered Russia. Military pressure, designated “the Anti-Terrorist Operation” was applied by the government in Kiev, resulting in a war lasting 7 years and claiming around 15,000 lives. Before the military operation of 2022 there were already 2.2 million internally displaced people in Ukraine and the Russian Federation, according to UN estimates, resulting from the Maidan coup of 2014.

Prof. Richard Sakwa noted back in 2015:

“From the very beginning Russian policy was caught between bad and very bad options. It was clear that ‘Novorossiya’ was not Crimea, where there had long been a powerful irredentist movement calling for reunification with Russia. There was nothing of the sort in Donbas, where the overwhelming majority sought a new settlement within Ukraine. Separatist aspirations only came later, after Yanukovych fled and the new authorities made several ill-judged moves in the absence of effective representation from the east, and then launched an all-out war against ‘terrorists’… Putin was coming under enormous pressure to offer succour to the Donbas insurgents and to stop the killing of civilians… There had been a powerful upwelling of domestic support for the resistance movement in the Donbas, to which Putin’s fate now became effectively tied – a situation he had devoted his whole presidency to avoiding… There was a full scale war and a massive humanitarian disaster on Russia’s doorstep, but a military intervention threatened to draw Russia into a direct conflict with Ukraine and its Western backers, a conflict that Russia could not hope to win. Like the Afghanistan war in the 1980s, the outcome could in the end be the fall of the government in Moscow. Unlike the Soviet Union, however, Putin faced powerful domestic pressures.” (pp.166-8)

The Ukrainian army was a formidable fighting force by 2022. It could draw on a population of 44 million and was one of the largest in Europe and without doubt the most battle-hardened, having been in the field for 8 years. It was also the best trained and equipped military force, courtesy of NATO. A BBC report on 24 March 2022, which involved interviews with 2 Ukrainian servicemen, revealed that from 2014:

“The whole Ukrainian army underwent an overhaul – to make it ready for the next war with Russia. Vlad and Mark, and almost every fighting man I have met on the frontline over the past three weeks, have one thing in common – they have all fought in the eastern Donbas region. Some sport combat patches on their body armour with “donbasonia” written on them. In the separatist Donbas enclaves of Donetsk and Luhansk, Ukrainian forces have been combat-tested for the past eight years. Between 250,000 and 400,000 Ukrainian men may have done tours of duty there since 2014. “Ukraine is not the same country it was in 2014,” one front line commander told me – echoing a sentiment that was repeated again and again to me in Kharkiv. This has created a more professional army, and one with common purpose – that a day of reckoning was sure to follow for the country.”

One comment

  1. Most informative and thought provoking article. These facts and analyses are completely ignored by the western media and there is extreme hype about innocent Ukraine.
    Thank you Dr Walsh for publishing this.

    Liked by 1 person

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