Kiev’s determination to extinguish pro-Russian sentiment in its two far eastern provinces has derailed the Minsk agreement, which offered the best hope for stability in the region.
The UN General Assembly on December 16 passed its annual resolution on “combating glorification of Nazism, neo-Nazism and other practices that contribute to fuelling contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance”, with 130 countries voting in favour and only two in opposition.
One of those voting against was Ukraine. The other was the United States. Australia, together with a group of other pro-US nations, abstained. Washington justified its vote with a convoluted argument about protecting freedom of expression. Presumably on that basis it should give up its attempts to ban hate speech.
The UN vote was followed by a torchlight parade through Ukraine’s capital, Kiev, commemorating the birthday of wartime Nazi collaborator Stepan Bandera, seen as the founder of today’s Ukraine. As head of the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists, Bandera’s group had joined in the wartime Nazi mass killings of Jews, Russians and others.
Today the Banderites and other similar nationalist right-wing groups have become the dominant force in Ukraine. One of their first demands has been the restoration of the Ukrainian language.
I travelled extensively in Ukraine, including Crimea, in the 1960s and in Crimea again in 2016. Russian was the absolute lingua franca. Only in the traditionally anti-Russian, anti-Semitic western regions close to Poland would one hear Ukrainian, then regarded as a poor relation of Russian.
Since then the Banderite right wing has come a long way in its quest for political power. A major success was the 2014 Maidan revolt against the democratically elected pro-Russian government. The Banderites have also done much to ignite a civil war which has left 14,000 dead and divided the nation. Russian speakers were and probably remain the majority. But with the anti-Russians now in control, use of the Ukrainian language is being forcefully imposed.
Pro-Russians with access to Russian aid have been bottled up and fighting for survival in the two far eastern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, which basically is where we are now today.
But it is not where we should be. In 2015 representatives of Russia, Ukraine, the OSCE (Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe) and the two pro-Russian separatist provinces met in Minsk and signed what was supposed to be a peace agreement to end the war. The leaders of France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine were there at the same time. They too declared support for the deal, which promised a dialogue on interim self-government for Donetsk and Luhansk and to acknowledge their special status by a resolution of the Ukrainian parliament.
In other words, the two provinces would come to resemble regions such as Quebec in Canada, which remains in Canada but with its own laws and language.
Kiev has managed to circumvent the Minsk agreement and all subsequent attempts at a peace deal by the simple device of saying it was unable to get parliament to grant the constitutional power for the “decentralisation” needed to allow Donetsk and Luhansk to go their separate ways. It did not have that constitutional power for the simple reason that it did not want that power. It wants the Donetsk and Luhansk holdouts to be extinguished.
On this basis, Kiev assumes the right to continue the war against the two separatist provinces, Moscow assumes the right to provide the aid needed for their survival, and the West assumes the right to provide the aid needed to counter “Russian aggression”, even though Moscow has repeatedly stated it wants the two provinces to remain in Ukraine as promised under the Minsk agreement.
Today we hear much about Russian aggression and a rules-based international order. But we hear very little mention of the Minsk agreements that were supposed to provide the order needed to resolve the Ukraine problem.