How legitimate are Russia’s claims over Ukraine?

Parts of Ukraine are already being shelled. The situation is to be sliding ever further into all-out war. Western mainstream media has been telling quite a simple and consistent story about this. Many more thoughtful people want to probe this, but the counter-infomration is polluted by Russian misinformation. How did we get here and what is really happening?

Western politicians are advancing a very simple story. Ukraine is an independent country, which is being threatened with military power. That is a very bad thing. Defenders of Russia are advancing a more complicated story, but the way of Russian propaganda is not to present anything that is consistent or coherent, but to spread doubt. It does this through a combination of truths, half-truths and downright lies. Through this fog, two key ideas are being advanced: Ukraine is not a legitimate independent state, and that the current government’s policies present Russia with a major threat to its security. The lack of clarity around this message means that its impact in the West has been very limited. It is picked up by people on the far left and far right who have very little political influence. Donald Trump may be among them, but for once the rest of his party is going in a very different direction. Nevertheless the mainstream Western view does over-simplify a complex situation.

What are my sources? They are mostly mainstream, reported in places such as The Economist and the Financial Times, combined with my knowledge of history culled from many sources. This is supplemented by the reported experience of a friend who emigrated to a Russian-speaking region of Ukraine, Dnepropetrovsk, in the early 2000s (or before, even). Sadly he passed away on Christmas Day 2020 – but I remember well what he said about the experience of living in Ukraine (with some knowledge of Russian, but little Ukrainian), and especially the events of 2014, which most accounts take as the starting point of the current crisis.

Ukraine emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Union almost by accident. It was not a coherent political creation. Stalin gifted it Crimea for no particularly good reason. The west of the country included lands that had not been part of the Russian (or Soviet) state until Russia occupied it in 1940 as part of the Nazi-Soviet Pact. This included the city now called Lviv, traditionally Lvov, which had been part of the Austrian Habsburg empire. I visited it back in 1984 (along with Minsk, Moscow, Leningrad, Moscow and Kiev), and our Russian guide explained she could not understand the locals because they were speaking Polish. Further west the country has a longer association with Russia, but had they a distinctive language and religion (Catholic rather than Orthodox). But in the east, including the capital Kiev, the country has been more consistently Russian. Russian language and ways predominate. These differences created political tensions between Ukrainian nationalists and those that looked to Russia, who predominated in the West, especially in Crimea, which hosted a Russian naval base, and the Donbas, which had substantial, if increasingly obsolete, heavy industry. Both sides had substantial power bases and the Ukrainian government fell under the influence of each in turn. Among Russian speakers, who form the majority, there is no automatic looking to Moscow – which I often regard as historically a Ukrainian offshoot, rather than the other way round. The region’s experiences under the Soviet government were not happy. While not comfortable with Ukrainian nationalism, and its emphasis on the Ukrainian language, Russian speakers’ overall attitude to the country’s independence has been quite pragmatic.

The most important thing to understand about the first decade or two of Ukrainian independence is that the country was badly run. As in Russia, well-connected oligarchs amassed huge assets and proceeded to dominate politics. In fact it was worse than Russia, as, especially under Vladimir Putin, Russia began to reign their oligarchs in. The early 2000s were probably the high-point of Russian influence in Ukraine as a result. People could see that Russians were better off. But the tide turned, I think for two reasons. Firstly the standard-bearer for the pro-Russian faction, Viktor Yanukovich, who legitimately won the presidency in 2010, was unspeakably corrupt. Meanwhile Eastern European countries that joined the European Union started to prosper, and their governance improved. Ukrainians increasingly looked west for inspiration. Yanukovich tried to juggle the Europeans against the Russians, but as he was increasingly pressured by Russia away from Europe, this was too much for many Ukrainians. This led to the Maidan revolution, which turned Yanukovich from power in early 2014, but until after nearly 100 protestors were killed by the security forces.

This is where the contested history really starts. In Russian telling the Maidan revolution was a fascist-led coup, back by Western powers, and the government it created started to oppress Russian-speakers. Evidence cited includes clashes in the Black Sea port of Odessa in May 2014, where more than 40 pro-Russian supporters were killed in a fire. I can’t speak for the strict legal constitutionality of Yanukovich’s ejection from power, although it was instigated by the country’s parliament – but it is wrong to say it was anti-democratic. New elections were held in June of that year, which gave the whole thing legitimacy. But we should not underplay the bitterness felt by pro-Russian citizens at the time. And, given the muddle of the country’s creation, neither should we question their feelings of affiliation with Russia.

Then the Russians struck. They managed to occupy Crimea with very little violence. They also supported uprisings in Donetsk and Luhansk in the Donbas region. It is hard to tell what local people in the areas felt about this actions. So far as can be told most people in Crimea were (and are) happy to be part of Russia (a referendum was organised – but such haste and lack of process that it is hard to take seriously). The exception were descendants of Crimean Tatars exiled there by Stalin – who were anti-Russian rather than pro-Ukrainian. I’m sure plenty of people in the Donbas regions supported the uprising, though I suspect that most were against violence. The Ukrainian government tried to take back control, leading to a nasty war which drew in Russian troops (“volunteers”), who managed to stop the badly-organised Ukrainian effort, but not without many dead on both sides.

It is worth pausing here to consider what the stance of the Western powers is in all this. Europeans welcomed the opportunity to trade in a market with substantial potential, as well as the political kudos of promoting a European-style democratic society. But they also despaired at the corruption in Ukraine, and doubtless worried about trampling on Russian power. Americans were surely not that interested, as they pivoted away from Europe to Asia, with major distractions in the Middle East. Both are now accused of not taking Russia seriously enough at the time, and of failing to provide the country with military support, or pressing the Russians with more severe sanctions. Meanwhile the Russians accuse those same powers of orchestrating the whole thing. I think the truth was that the West saw the area as within a Russian sphere of influence, and hesitated to get involved. But neither could they easily accept Russia stopping the Ukrainian people facing westwards if that is what they chose. They also worried about violation of international law – although America had thoroughly muddied the waters there with their invasion of Iraq in 2003.

The Donbas rebellions reached a stalemate, and a ceasefire of sorts was arranged through, formalised in the Minsk Protocol in 2015. This envisaged Ukraine taking full control of the rebel areas, but within a system of devolved government which would have given these states a veto over much of what happened at national level. The protocol has not been honoured by either side. Doubtless it is at the centre of French-led efforts at diplomatic intervention, but the sticking point might be as much the Ukrainian government as the Russian.

According to my friend in Dnepropetrovsk, the 2014 war was a turning-point in the attitudes of the bulk of Russian-speaking Ukrainians. They were shocked at Russia’s violent intervention, leading to so many deaths of their compatriots from all over Ukraine. They have got behind the pro-Western direction of the government, which now aspires to join NATO. Doubtless pockets of pro-Russian feeling remain, though, for example in Odessa. Meanwhile Mr Putin’s Russia finds the western drift of Ukraine intolerable. Pointing out that Russia has only itself to blame for this doesn’t help.

This is a matter of prestige rather than genuine threat to Russian security. Though NATO leaders cannot say it, they have no intention of letting Ukraine join NATO. And if they did it is hard to see that they would deploy aggressive forces there. NATO is fundamentally a defensive organisation, and its members, except America on occasion, really don’t like throwing their weight around militarily. Their speciality is soft power. Mr Putin may see westward-looking Ukraine as a threat to his political system, though. That soft power presents a real threat on that score. So he is now trying to balance soft power with hard power.

Personally I think that the Ukrainian government’s NATO aspirations were a serious mistake. It would have been better to aim for formal neutrality – a bit like the state of Finland in the Cold War. It would have provoked Russia less – though made a Russian military intervention less costly. Perhaps Ukrainians think that the 2014 interventions show that Russia may see a neutral Ukraine as an opportunity for meddling. Especially when its leader questions the country’s high to exist.

This challenge is downplayed in Western media coverage, but it is getting harder to ignore. For more than a hundred years, after the world started to reject imperialism, it has been held that the right way to settle such matters is through consent. But the bar to countries breaking away has been a high one, and that of countries absorbing neighbours higher yet. Somebody once said that Russia has to choose between democracy and imperialism. After a brief interval of democracy in the 1990s, it is clearly back into imperialist thinking.

Morally the Western powers are clearly in the right, for all the over-simplifications. Russia’s use of military power is naked imperialism. We should have stopped going to war about such things as a region’s wish for independence, provided it abides by basic humanitarian norms. Britain is not sending tanks to Scotland to suppress the Scottish nationalists. We should be standing against the change of borders except by consent. Even the invasion of Iraq ended with an independent state in unchanged borders – though that doesn’t make it right.

4 thoughts on “How legitimate are Russia’s claims over Ukraine?”

  1. As always, a sensible and fair treatment of the complexities. The bottom line for liberals, pluralists and democrats appears to be respect for sovereignty and rule of law. If the conflict proceeds to the capture of Kiev, Black Sea maritime amphibious operations and the ending of Ukraine as a State, we have a fresh “Iron Curtain” on our hands. Liberals are robust about values and when required we will defend our NATO allies. Anything else would be tragic.

    1. Sovereignty and military restraint are easy things to unite around. Putin is making a big gamble in the medium to long term.

  2. From this post’s account of the history, Ukraine’s turn to the West looks to me irreversible. Ukrainians united behind a west-wards orientation (rather than being deeply divided) when they saw that life in their Western neighbours was better than in Russia. They were then antagonised by what Russia did in 2014. The pull of a better western lifestyle will continue, and – the way Russia is going at present – will get greater. Surely Putin is onto a loser? – at least in the medium term. I don’t know what will happen in the short term, but there appear to be the makings of very real trouble.

    1. No good comes from a war, so it is hard to be optimistic. It hard to see that more than a minority of Ukrainians will wish for their state to be part of Russia. It is not clear whether Putin plans to reincorporate Ukraine into Russia, or to establish another Belarus. His comments can be read either way, and both present difficulties. But it does look as if Ukraine, in some form will become an independent state in the longer term. I’m not actually sure that Ukraine’s standard of living is better than that of Russia, but the balance of power between individuals and the state and oligarchy was heading in a more positive direction in the Ukraine – and that is what draws ordinary Ukrainians towards the west. Plus Russia does seem to be in a bit of a dead end economically.

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