Friday, October 10, 2008
How to avoid a second Crimean War
This article of mine appears in The First Post.
In the Panorama Museum in Sevastopol last week I gazed at one of the world's most incredible paintings, The Defence of Sevastopol by Franz Roubaud. The 360-degree, 14 metres high, 2,000 square metre masterpiece, depicts in great detail one day's fighting during the siege of the city during the Crimean War.
That bloody conflict was brought about by Western attempts to push the Russian Fleet out of the Black Sea. Today, 154 years after the start of the first Crimean War, could history be about to repeat itself?
The prospect of a new conflict on this Black Sea peninsula seemed unreal on a beautiful late summer's afternoon. In Sevastopol's pretty seaside park, close by the port which is still home to Russia's Black Sea fleet, young and old appeared not to have a care in the world. Yet tensions in the region are rising.
When Khrushchev gave the Crimean peninsular to Ukraine in 1954 it was a pretty meaningless gesture given that Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union and under the Kremlin's control. But the majority of the two million people who live on the peninsula are ethnic Russians who were and remain loyal to Moscow, unlike the majority of Ukrainians who were delighted to split from Russia in 1991 when the country became independent. I lose count of the number of Russian flags I saw flying in the streets of Sevastopol. By contrast, the yellow and blue national colours of Ukraine were nowhere to be seen.
Ukraine has been in political paralysis for the past month since the 'Our Ukraine' party of the country's pro-western president Viktor Yushchenko pulled out of the ruling coalition after the bloc led by Yushchenko's bitter rival, the photogenic prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, sided with the opposition pro-Moscow faction.
This week Yuschenko dissolved parliament and called a general election for December 7. The stakes for the future of the Crimea could not be higher.
What is fuelling anti-Ukrainian and pro-separatist sentiments is the determination of Yuschenko to forge ahead with his plans for Nato membership. "The Americans and their puppet Yushchenko want Ukraine in Nato and the Russian Fleet to be booted out of Sevastopol," student Misha Lebedev told me in a cafe off the city's main 'Lenina' street . "But here the people will never allow that. If Ukraine joins Nato then Crimea will leave Ukraine. It's as simple as that. We are Russians and we will never accept that Russia is our enemy."
From Kiev, Yushchenko plays the wounded victim. "I am convinced, deeply convinced that the democratic coalition was ruined by one thing alone - human ambition," he said, pointing the finger of blame at Yulia Tymoshenko as he announced what will be the country's third general election in three years. "The ambition of one person. Thirst for power, different values, personal interests taking precedence over national interests."
But nearly everyone I spoke to in Sevastopol was of the same mind: the West's desire to expand Nato to Russia's borders is seen as a blatant example of imperialist aggression just as the British/French attack on Sevastopol was seen in 1854. "Nato is about encircling Russia. If they persist in this policy, there will be a war," warned pensioner Alexander Petrov. "The Russian fleet will never leave Sevastopol."
The best way to avoid a break-up of the Ukraine - and the very real prospect of war -would be for western hawks to accept that Ukraine, because of its internal divisions, will never be a suitable candidate for membership of Nato. But last month's hardline anti-Russian speech in Kiev by British Foreign Secretary David Miliband - in which he reiterated Nato's promise made in April this year that both Ukraine and Georgia would eventually join Nato - hardly augurs well.
On December 7 the dreams of the Nato expansionists may be dashed by the Ukrainian people themselves. Like the great pragmatist Yulia Tymoshenko, they may well decide that staying friends with Moscow is a more attractive alternative than a second Crimean War and vote accordingly.