I’ve been following events in Ukraine quite closely and this, for what it’s worth, is my reading of what’s happened. I realise that it may differ in places from the story told in the media – MM
When the Soviet Union collapsed and the Wall came down, the peoples of Eastern Europe were all anxious to take their places in the European family. The Russians shared this enthusiasm. They blamed the Cold War on their own Communist leadership; they adopted the ways of capitalism and western-style democracy, clumsily at first, then with increasing economic and political success, and they looked forward to peaceful cooperation and friendship from Ireland to Siberia. Their Warsaw Pact was disbanded. They expected that NATO, which had been set up, the Westerners said, to counter the threat of aggressive Communism and a hegemonic Soviet Union, would be disbanded also. They knew their own weakness, they no longer believed in Communism and they felt they were no longer a threat to their neighbours. But NATO remained in place and expanded towards their frontiers.
Of course, the Russian viewpoint was naïve. The peoples of Eastern Europe could not so quickly forget a half-century of Russian rule and NATO remained and grew at least partly because new members clamoured to be included in it. Russia was weak at first and raised little objection for as long as NATO expanded into the other former Warsaw pact members and perhaps even the Baltic states. But when the question arose of EU and NATO membership in what had been traditional Russian territory for centuries – above all Ukraine – a point was reached at which Putin knew he must – and now felt he could – say No.
Unlike the countries on its western frontier, Ukraine never had a strong national identity. Most of it had belonged to the Russian Empire and then the Soviet Union for two centuries. During the Soviet period, the Eastern part of the country became heavily industrialised and mostly spoke Russian. The Western part spoke Ukrainian as a first language but Ukrainian is closely related to Russian and there had never been a strong Ukrainian linguistic and literary tradition comparable with Russian or even with Polish. The Christian tradition of most of Ukraine is Orthodox, as in Russia, not Catholic, as in Poland. Most Russians quite simply regard Ukraine as a traditional part of Russia and are fond of remembering that the earliest ‘Russian’ state was based in Kiev.
If Ukraine had been able to produce a strong leader like Putin with a good grasp of political realities, compromise might have been possible. As perceived from Moscow, the proper role for Ukraine under present circumstances was that of a buffer state between Russia and NATO. Even EU membership might have been acceptable; NATO membership was quite definitely not. But the Ukraine was dominated, as Russia had been at first, by a corrupt minority.
The Crimea is and was a special issue. Sebastopol is and has been for a long time a great Russian naval base. When the Soviet Union fell, the Crimea, more or less by accident, became part of Ukraine rather than of Russia, and the Sebastopol base was leased from Ukraine and continued to be used by Russian fleet. It was an unsatisfactory arrangement but tolerable for as long as the Ukraine needed Russian gas and when necessary, Russian economic support. But when the possibility arose of Ukraine joining the NATO camp, Putin was confronted with the nightmare possibility of NATO in Sebastopol.
Ukraine was a failed state and became increasingly ungoverned and ungovernable. Uncompromising extremists in Kiev attempted to impose the Ukrainian language on the Russian-speaking areas, which included the eastern industrial cities – and the Crimea. Russian speakers became restive, in the Crimea as elsewhere. The Crimean coup which followed was almost certainly very carefully planned and prepared in Moscow, but it took advantage of strong pro-Russian feelings among the Crimean population to make it look like a local uprising. In a very short space of time, an independent Crimean state had been proclaimed, the new state had applied to become part of Russia and had been accepted. Since then Russian possession has been rapidly consolidated. The Crimea is practically an island and forms a natural political unit with a clearly-defined and easily-defensible frontier. It would take a very powerful force indeed now to detach Sebastopol again from Russia.
But the Russian speakers of the East Ukrainian industrial cities felt just as strongly about their situation as did the Russian speakers of the Crimea – and expected similar treatment. Almost certainly they had no encouragement at all from Moscow. Even supposing that Eastern Ukraine could have been detached from Ukraine without major hostilities, the resultant partitioning of the country would have meant a very strongly anti-Russian Western Ukraine, probably a member of NATO and containing US bases, right on Russia’s new Western frontier. Much better that an undivided and peaceful compromise Ukraine should remain as a buffer.
Unfortunately, elements among the Eastern Ukrainians would not take ‘No’ for an answer, even if ‘No’ came from Moscow. As the Crimea had done, they declared independence. The Kiev government sent its troops – infantry and tanks – to bring them to book. But those troops, many of whom were Russian-speakers, whose morale was at rock-bottom, not least because they were not even being properly supplied, fed and paid, simply refused to fire on the civilian population. They deserted wholesale. Their equipment and often they themselves rapidly became part of a serious military force at the disposal of the new hastily organised government. Wild excitement spread through Russia itself and adventurous volunteers crossed the frontier and joined the rebel side. There was never any need for the Russian government to provide the new armies with equipment, even if they had been willing to do so; they used Ukrainian equipment and re-branded it.
The government in Kiev reacted in two ways. Unable to command the obedience of most of their regular forces, they used private armies organised and paid by their wealthy financial backers, perhaps also foreign mercenaries. And they purged rebel elements from their artillery and aviation and relied increasingly on bombardment from a distance. The cities in rebel territory became subject to indiscriminate air attack, in which civilians were the main casualties. The rebels had surface-to-air missiles effective at low altitudes, and shot down the planes. The Ukrainian forces turned instead to unguided surface-to surface GRAD-type missiles of extreme destructive power, with even more indiscriminate results.
And then came the MH17 disaster…