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Ukraine: can anything save it?

By Peter Coates - posted Friday, 9 May 2014


Much has been written about Russia’s slow motion domination of Ukraine. The gradual nature of this process and the tactics Russia is using makes it all the more difficult for the West to respond effectively. This article in part argues that a major Russian objective is to dominate Ukraine in order to protect Russia’s diminishing strategic buffer zone. This buffer zone is principally valued because it protects Russia’s heartland from aggressive foreign forces. In this context these forces are military but to a much lesser extent, in Putin’s xenophobic Russia, they may be economic and cultural forces.

The following does not aim to legitimise Russia’s actions but seeks to provide some perspective. Most great powers assume that might is right in their own backyards. It’s the smaller, weaker neighbours like Ukraine that suffer.

Russia’s buffer zone has been tested twice over the last hundred years. Both times, in World Wars One and Two, this zone served to slow down German invasions. Russia had been invaded by many others earlier, including the French, Poles, even the Swedes. Since the end of the Cold War NATO has steadily expanded to include the former buffer countries of Poland, East Germany, Bulgaria, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Rumania, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. The Russian leadership don’t want Ukraine to also join NATO as they see Ukraine as a dependent region of ancient Russia. As well as being a large country (by European standards) Ukraine has too many natural resources, including grain, and too large an army to lose to the West. Ukraine in NATO would almost complete the removal of Russia’s buffer zone – leaving only Belarus and Finland as buffers.

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Ukrainein its efforts to move closer to the West has been totally outmanoeuvred by Russia’s use of special forces directed “civilians”. This is even when these “civilians” successfully use man portable surface to air missiles. Ukraine is finding that its army and police forces are generally unwilling to fire on these pro-Russian “civilians”. Instead there is increasing reliance on pro-Ukrainian militias. The danger of militias lies in their uncontrollable tendency to indiscriminately fight for their own goals rather than for Ukraine’s.

Another problem is that Russia may justifiably invade Ukraine if there is a genuine need to protect ethnic Russians. Ukraine’s demographic is 78% ethnic Ukrainian and around 17% ethnic Russian (at last count) However distribution of ethnic Russians is such (see map) that Russia may need to invade a third or more of Ukraine to protect ethnic Russians. There is also the possibility of a Russian invasion of all of Ukraine. See this immensely detailed map which is probably based on NATO intelligence information.

The ability of the US to criticise Russia on moral grounds has declined due to America’s long term and more recent actions. The former include more than a century of US invasions of weaker countries in its own Latin American backyard. During the 1980s the US invaded Panama and Grenada for rather trumped up reasons. In a campaign similar to Russia’s today the US (in the mid 1980s) organised and armed right-wing “contras” to bring down the government of left leaning Nicaragua.

The West has suffered from disunity in imposing sanctions on Russia. EU countries trade heavily with Russia and many rely on Russia’s oil and gas exports (a powerful Russian economic weapon). A trade deal that has angered the US has been France selling two large amphibious assault ships to Russia - with one delivered since the Ukrainian crisis began. One of these ships just happens to be named the Sevastopol the home port of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet in Crimea, where this whole Ukrainian crisis started. More to the point these ships are particularly suited to such operations as a Russian invasion of Ukraine or of other countries Russia may wish to invade to rebuild its buffer zone.

The Russians have done their best to boost US-EU disunity by conducting electronic spying on the US. Russian monitoring of a phone call that included a US Assistant Secretary of State (Victoria Nuland), yielded an embarrassing comment from her concerning EU policy on the Ukraine - which was “F--k the EU”.

As the crisis in Ukraine escalates this may impact on Australia in several ways, including higher world oil prices causing some damage and higher world grain prices that would benefit Australian farmers. Eventually some US military forces that might have been useful in our region may be shifted to Eastern Europe (see this report).

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Ukraine has no easy choices. It can’t rely on the West and Russian treatment of Ukraine in living memory has been close to genocidal. Under Stalin the Russians intentionally starved Ukraine in part to break any feelings of Ukrainian nationalism. This imposed famine in 1932-1933 was called the Holodomor (Death by Hunger). At least four million Ukrainians died.

Like Poland Ukraine has the misfortune of living next to historically cruel neighbours. Can anything save it?

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About the Author

Peter Coates has been writing articles on military, security and international relations issues since 2006. In 2014 he completed a Masterís Degree in International Relations, with a high distinction average. His website is Submarine Matters.

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