Western rhetoric about the situation in Ukraine shows little understanding of the realities of Russia and Ukraine. If Western countries want a new cold war they are going the right way about it. It is a complex problem which cannot be solved by superficial noises about democracy and territorial integrity. Crimea is a special case which should be separated from the more general conflict.
Crimea was always Russian until Khrushchev put it into the Ukrainian SSR which didn’t matter because everything at that time was controlled from Moscow anyway. However, after the break-up, a whole lot of people who spoke Russian and thought of themselves as Russians found themselves in a country they didn’t want to be part of and felt no loyalty towards. That is why they are an autonomous region and that is why they want to be part of Russia instead of Ukraine.
Many Russians do not see Ukrainians as being different. The beginnings of what we now know as Russia were in Kiev when Prince Vladimir adopted Orthodox Christianity. Kievan Rus, as it was known, then spread north to Moscow and is seen by Russians as the origin of their civilisation. Those who think of themselves as Ukrainian would not deny history but presumably would argue that things have changed in the last 500 years and they prefer to look towards Europe.
Ukraine is divided between Russians and Ukrainians. The non-Russian Ukrainians have an understandable distrust of Russia. In places like Lvov people who have never moved from the one house have been Polish, Soviet Russians and now Ukrainian. There is also a religious divide between Russian Orthodox and Uniates who have their own rites but accept the authority of the Pope. The current split within Ukraine is between those who look to Russia and those who look to Europe.
If a free and fair referendum is held in Crimea there is likely to be a majority for joining Russia. Forcing these people back into Ukraine is not going to solve anything. They will remain a discontented group who will continue to make trouble for the central government. They believe they have the right to self-determination and Ukraine might be a stronger and more stable country without them.
Russians are a proud people who have been humiliated by their lessened influence in the world but who still firmly believe Russia is a Great Power. Putin has this view in spades and attempts by the West, especially the USA, to pressure him will be resisted. It is certainly true that he is authoritarian – to put it mildly – but this should not lead us to ignore the fact that in the case of Crimea he does have a point. Quite apart from Crimea, Putin does have a vision of a Russia which plays a major role in the world and is not pushed around. He does not seem to accept that Ukrainians don’t like to be pushed around either.
Sanctions are dangerous in that they will tend to create a gap instead of bringing Russia into closer ties with Europe. Even if they were to succeed, they would leave a resentment that will not go away in a hurry. Megaphone diplomacy is not helpful.
The pious comments from the Coalition of the Willing about not interfering in other countries are a bit rich! While there is plenty of chest pounding from Putin, Russians will not be impressed by pressure from people they see as not being in a position to cast the first stone. Western countries may claim the moral high ground but Russians will not agree.
Australia can have no significant influence in this dispute and we would be well advised to keep a low profile. However, I understand that domestic pressure from Ukrainians here who have more votes than Russians is a factor which politicians will take into account in their public rhetoric. I suspect the community here, many of whom left Ukraine while it was still part of the USSR, have unreal expectations of what Australia could and should do in Ukraine. Most of them belong to the Ukrainian speaking and anti Russian part of the country. They have a legitimate point of view but so perhaps do the people who do not want to be part of Ukraine.
Cavan Hogue was the last Australian Ambassador to the USSR and the first to the Russian Federation and to Ukraine. He was also Ambassador to Mexico, Malaysia and Thailand.