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Cornered, the Russian bear likely to show its teeth in region

Russia’s increasing aggression in the Ukraine is a result of its deep-seated fear of outside aggression. Without a pliant Ukraine, Russia may take more drastic measures.

The immediacy of events in Ukraine, including the recent the pro-Ukranian demonstrations in Kiev and pro-Russian demonstrations in eastern Donetsk, have blinkered much understanding of the unfolding crisis to Moscow’s south. The triumphalism that accompanied the collapse of the  Soviet Union left many Western observers blind to an underlying architecture predicated on Russia’s deeply felt need to never again be subject to a catastrophe like the “Great Patriotic War”.

Between 1941 and 1945, over 26 million people, more than one in eight, died within Soviet borders. As with the Jewish Holocaust, this lesson has not been forgotten.

The Soviet Union and the post-Soviet core Russian state wanted to retain a buffer between the state and potential aggressors, as well as to neutralise potential enemies along its borders. This fits hand in glove with President Vladimir Putin’s plan for a Eurasian Union, in much the same way that the European Union was intended to neutralise long-term enmity between European states.

There is little doubt that the Russian media’s hyperbole over Ukraine’s neo-Nazis is vastly overblown, not least given the presence of neo-Nazis in Russia. Putin is himself sympathetic to “White Russian” philosopher Ivan Ilych. But that there remain members of Ukraine’s government with at least a neo-Nazi past remains genuinely troubling, both for Russia as well as a more moderate West.

In particular, the All Ukrainian Union “Svoboda” party, which has five members in government, was created in the early post-Soviet era as the Social-National Party of Ukraine, intentionally mirroring the German Nazi National-Socialist Party name. Its defining characteristics were ethnic exclusivity, anti-Semitism, pronounced neo-Nazi rhetoric and, until 2003, the stylised neo-Nazi “wolf-hook” (wolfsangel) logo …

However, by 2005, Svoboda had begun to purge its more extreme elements, broke with other European neo-Nazi groups and attempted to take on a more moderate hue. It has since clashed with other neo-Nazi groups, including the radical Right Sector at Euromaidan during the protests that toppled President Viktor Yanukovych.

Along with moderation came political success, with Svoboda’s vote increasing from a negligible proportion to around 10.4% in the 2012 elections. Some Ukranian neo-Nazi groups also had members elected as independents, although failed to gain inclusion in the new government.

That Ukrainian Nazis were key allies of German Nazis in World War II is not lost on Russian politicians. This then feeds into Russian concerns over what one former British diplomat posted to Moscow has referred to as its own “arc of instability”, which ranges from Belarus bordering Poland to the west, Moldova and Ukraine to the south-east and the troubled Caucasus region of Abkhazia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Chechnya, Dagestan and the rest to the south and south-west.

Without its outer layer of the old Soviet bloc states to the west, unable to fully control otherwise independent former Soviet states and with ethnically distinct regions variously attempting to separate, Russia, in its darker moments, is afraid. This fear provokes a bombastic assertion, as if to ward off past nightmares.

In its more rational moments, Russia seeks future security through the Eurasia Union trading zone. But it remains brittle when challenged — hence Russia’s intervention in the now less pliable Ukraine.

There is little economic value in creating Crimea as an internal part of the Russian state, and even its strategic value is less than it once was; Russia has other Black Sea bases. But this effective annexation is an assertion of regional dominance, which has been to date successful.

Assuming a continued lack of Ukranian compliance, Russia’s next step is likely to be “assisting” ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine also break away. The West will continue to protest, without a united voice.

But Russia’s “facts on the ground” are just that, and no one is going to war over Ukraine, probably including Ukrainians themselves.

*Professor Damien Kingsbury is director of the Centre for Citizenship, Development and Human Rights at Deakin University

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  • 1
    Reina Barnfield
    Posted Monday, 10 March 2014 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

    I can see that they are ready to show up their teeth.

  • 2
    PaulM
    Posted Monday, 10 March 2014 at 9:25 pm | Permalink

    Let’s hope your last sentence proves to be correct

  • 3
    Posted Monday, 10 March 2014 at 11:21 pm | Permalink

    I don’t think that the Russian Federation’s Eurasian Union is at all like the European Union. The European Union was established to stop its members fighting amongst themselves. The Eurasian Union is not to stop Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia from fighting amongst themselves, but to stop Russia being invaded from the west and the south.

  • 4
    R. Ambrose Raven
    Posted Tuesday, 11 March 2014 at 1:18 am | Permalink

    Never mind Russia; “we” need to recognise just how weak “we” have become.

    A continuing Western economic and social crisis has been greatly worsened by criminal Imperial adventurism.

    Maintaining the growth obsession means crisis then collapse as forced demand exponentially exceeds supply, meaning a classic capitalist crisis of overproduction. Third World economies will stay Third World, due not only to increasing resource pressures, but also to being asset- and income-stripped by globalisation. ‘Economic growth’ would not in any case alleviate the problem of global poverty; not having done so in the centuries prior to the Great Recession it certainly won’t now given peak oil, peak water, peak minerals, climate change, and peak food.

    That our system is hitting its limits is shown in each crisis being worse than the last. Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman wrote recently: “The evidence does, in fact, suggest that what we’re getting now is a first taste of the disruption, economic and political, that we’ll face in a warming world. And given our failure to act on greenhouse gases, there will be much more, and much worse, to come.”

    In the waging of a war of aggression against Iraq, war criminals and mass murderers George Bush, Tony Blair, and John Howard did not merely commit crimes against peace. They also bankrupted the US economy, triggered Peak Oil, lengthened the occupation of Afghanistan, and triggered the global financial crisis.

    Those Imperial wars assisted a divide between richest and poorest in America that is worse than in nearly all Europe and Asia but about that of Rwanda and Serbia. Inequality is worse in the United States today than in any advanced industrial country for which there are data. Worse, the gap is widening.

    Media spin, denial, and trivialisation of important issues and exploitation of trivial ones therefore remains a serious problem, especially given the power of the Murdock media machine.

    Imperial power plays were once simply part of the First World’s waste. As those Imperial wars and human rights violations abroad have led to erosions in civil liberties and falling living standards at home, we are now also victims of our tolerance of ruling class violence.

  • 5
    Andreas Bimba
    Posted Tuesday, 11 March 2014 at 9:08 am | Permalink

    Ukraine is as entitled to its independence as any other nation and over its history has been the greatest victim of Russian brutality apart from the Russian people themselves.

    The despotic regimes of Russia from Imperial to Bolshevik to Putin have an appalling record of brutality and subjugation of neighbouring nations and internal ethnic and independent minded groups. The Putin regime has engaged in war against and persecution of Russia’s southern predominately Muslim minorities that has claimed over 250,000 lives during his period as leader. This behaviour is just a continuation of a very regular pattern throughout Russia’s history.

    http://faminegenocide.com/resources/causes.html
    http://www.artukraine.com/famineart/famine10.htm
    http://www.sbs.com.au/dateline/story/watch/id/600211/n/Russia-s-Hidden-War
    http://hotterthanapileofcurry.wordpress.com/2010/03/31/255000-muslims-killed-in-russias-war-against-the-caucasus-region/

    The Russian invasion of Crimea is totally unacceptable even if Russia happens to have a strong historical claim to this territory and that a slight majority of residents have Russian ethnicity. Russia has used its military superiority and the threat of invasion to intimidate Ukraine into submission analogous to a rapist using the threat of greater violence or death to have his way with his victim. A price must be applied by the rest of the world against Russia because of this.

    The hostility Russians see towards them by the rest of the world is a natural and reasonable response by the rest of the world to Russia’s inability to form strong democratic systems of government, to have a moral and independent system of justice, to respect the rights of all people and the ongoing brutality and lack of respect toward its neighbours, ethnic minorities and even for her ethnic majority, the ethnic Russian people.

    Mikhail Gorbachev probably understood this and chose to liberalise the Soviet Union but the present Putin regime has chosen to follow a political strategy closer to past despotic Russian leaders.

    It does not need to be this way. Russia could have become a non-threatening, truly democratic country where the rule of just law applied, that respected the rights of all of its citizens and that respected other nations. Russia has a sizable economy with many competitive advantages and through commerce could have become a valuable and respected member of the world community of nations.

    No nation wants to invade Russia nor could any nation or military alliance succeed in any form with such a foolish concept. NATO only acts to defend the borders of its member states and provides an essential military balance with Russia that enables much smaller nations on Russia’s periphery to have a more secure future.

    The world is nothing like it was prior to World War II and no totalitarian states apart from North Korea exist, not in Europe or in Asia. Russia and China have however shown in recent times a willingness to expand their territorial boundaries in a calculated way and the world must negotiate a return to former borders and/or apply a price for this illegal expansion.

    http://www.economist.com/blogs/economist-explains/2013/12/economist-explains-1
    http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-pacific-11341139

  • 6
    CML
    Posted Tuesday, 11 March 2014 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

    Andreas - I found your last sentence interesting. Does that mean that any other country that shows: “a willingness to expand their territorial boundaries…..the world must negotiate a return to former borders….? I don’t notice, you or anyone else, commenting that the worst offender in this regard is Israel, invading and occupying large areas of Palestine (West Bank), when they have even less right than Russia has over Crimea.
    When everyone starts to get serious about what Israel has been doing for the past 60+ years, then I’ll maybe listen to all these pious platitudes about Russia ‘invading’ The Ukraine.
    And please don’t tell me that Israel is a ‘democracy’ It isn’t! Just a bully with a nuclear arsenal - a bit like you describe Russia really!!!

  • 7
    Posted Tuesday, 11 March 2014 at 9:51 pm | Permalink

    Good points CML. Even were Israel a democracy that wouldn’t excuse its occupation nor its increasing apartheid provisions.

  • 8
    Ross Kapernick
    Posted Monday, 17 March 2014 at 5:31 pm | Permalink

    A good balanced article that sets out the situation well.
    The USA and Britain though seem blind to the above and to a large degree continually fail to take into account Russian concerns and fears. If the long standing tension between East and West Ukraine now comes to a head it will all be because of the USA. Not Russia.
    The USA and Britain since 1990 have been the real problem. Most of the time I find myself agreeing with Russia. The US in particular seems to get its kicks out of causing conflict and fear. All I can put it down to is US culture. An aggressive culture in all ways. Just like the Missile Shield to guard against Iranian Missiles. Missiles and deliverable nukes they will not have for at least 10 more years. How do they expect Russia to react when they make plans to put them on Russia’s border. The Cuban Missile crisis all over again. The USA puts Nuclear Missiles on the USSR’s border in Turkey and in Italy. The USSR says we don’t like it. We feel threatened. The US says get stuffed what are you going to do about it? They got there answer and they certainly did not like it. If the USA wanted to sort out the problems in Ukraine where were they with Aide and Trade and Investment for the last 20 years. Not to be seen. Russia has given them tens of billions over that period and trades with them without restriction. The USA and Britain nothing. A big part of the Ukraine problem is economic. Basically excluded from the EU Club. Was it Putin who compared the EU with a “Bikie Club”. Join and follow our rules or? Something that was never on for Ukraine. It is too divided. Russia respected that despite there long held dislike for Western Ukraine. It took them years to try to get on top of the NAZI elements still there after WW2. Russia has never insisted they join the “Russian Club” exclusively to receive aide and trade and investment. It is the West that has adopted that attitude.

  • 9
    Ross Kapernick
    Posted Monday, 17 March 2014 at 5:43 pm | Permalink

    Andreas Bimba, You are very selective in your statements and try to go back too far in history quoting only selective parts of history. It would be better if you stuck to recent history.

  • 10
    Andreas Bimba
    Posted Monday, 17 March 2014 at 9:14 pm | Permalink

    Ross Kapernick, Vladimir Putin’s war on Russia’s southern Muslim minorities is recent and is still proceeding. Russia’s concept of domination and control over Ukraine arises out of the historical context that I partly referenced.

    I have tried to visualise the expansion of the EU and NATO from the Russian perspective and do concede that this would appear threatening to Russia. Perhaps the EU model is fundamentally faulty and the original EEC trade zone model of independent nations with their own currencies was more rational. Russia and all other European nations could have even joined this model at some point while still maintaining their own currencies and political independence.

    The much smaller nations on Russia’s periphery such as the Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania however feel very threatened by Russia which is soundly based on history and now even more so following Vladimir Putin’s reckless military expansionism in Ukraine. The people of the Baltic States freely requested entry into the EU and NATO primarily because of the fear of Russian expansionism and for the stability and security that membership provides. Vladimir Putin apparently is not prepared to allow the Ukrainian people to make the same choice.

    If Russia were to be a stable, truly democratic and non-threatening nation, the military capabilities of the European NATO nations would have reduced even more rapidly over time than they have done since the end of the Soviet Union. Does the Russian leadership really think in the nuclear age that NATO would attempt an invasion of Russia?

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