A solution to the fighting in Ukraine will require agreement and cooperation by three parties without undue interference from outsiders. The three parties are the Russian Government, the Ukrainian Government and the Eastern Ukrainian rebels. The outsiders are NATO and the USA. Australia is not a player.
The Ukrainian rebels have legitimate grievances which Kiev must address instead of taking a single minded nationalistic and military approach to the complaints of its citizens. Russia needs to accept any deal that is reached between the warring parties in Ukraine and cease backing the side that suits its interests. NATO and the US need to accept any deal that is reached and cease backing the side that suits their interests. All this is easier said than done. Emotions and illusions run high.
The worry for other parts of the world is the danger that the USA and Russia will be drawn into a wider conflict based on twisted views of what the other is up to. Russia is over-sensitive to perceived slights to its amour propre and resents NATO missiles on its borders. It probably knows that NATO, for all its bluster, is a paper tiger militarily but it does create a nuisance through economic sanctions and verbal attacks. The hysterical abuse from the USA is of concern both because of fear that it may lead to action and because it hampers Trump from implementing one of his few sensible policies which is a deal with Russia that may promote peace. We need an American Gorbachev in foreign policy instead of a reincarnated Joseph McCarthy. Outbursts like Senator McCain screaming “ the Russians are killing Ukrainians” ignores the fact that Ukrainians are also killing Ukrainians and doesn’t really help anyone. US foreign policy remains strongly influenced by fundamentalist Christian views of good and evil and the necessity to punish perceived evil doers. The painting of Kiev as a virtuous democracy is an illusion.
While Russia has not declared a Monroe doctrine it does share with the US a desire for friendly regimes in its neighbourhood. Ukraine is a special case because most Russians don’t really believe that Ukrainians are different. Many Ukrainians are not very different but some parts of this varied country have been strongly influenced by other empires through the centuries and not just Russia. They have been part of Poland, Lithuania, Austria-Hungary, Germany and so on. They have a significant Catholic (Uniate) community which Russia does not have. Furthermore, unlike Eastern Ukraine which is negotiable, Crimea is a special case which should never have been part of Ukraine and which Russia is never going to give up so foreign demands that it do so are totally unrealistic. The Russians would also prefer to have friendly regimes in the Baltics, Poland and other nearby states but this doesn’t mean they are going to invade these places. They will threaten and demand that these countries protect Russian minorities but invasion is another matter.
So we have highly abusive and unhelpful rhetoric from Russia, the USA and the other NATO countries which creates an atmosphere of tension. In the US and Russia we have macho fighting cocks who don’t want to back down. To some extent they are painting themselves into a corner. So, in the immortal words of Vladimir Illych Lenin: Что делать?, (What is to be done?) The world must accept that, like it or not, Crimea will remain part of Russia and Russia must accept that Ukraine is going to remain independent. Outsiders should be supporting this process but recognise that eventually only the three principals can find a solution. Public abuse by all parties must cease. Will this happen? So far I see no signs of it but we can only hope that common sense will eventually prevail over machismo and a desire to punish heretics. The more Russians and Americans scream abuse at each other, the less likely we are to get some sense into this situation.
Australia has no influence so public statements supporting the extremists in the USA reinforce the perception that we are a puppet of the US. Claims like that of Mr Abbot that Vladimir Putin is somehow personally responsible for the downing of MH17 simply make us look foolish. Playing to the domestic gallery doesn’t help. We are unlikely to have any influence on the US, let alone Russia or Ukraine, so we should keep our big mouth shut and focus on things in our own part of the world that we can influence and that promote Australian interests.
Cavan Hogue is a former Australian Ambassador to the USSR and Russia.